CITY OF WINE by Ned Dickens (Nightswimming). At Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson). Opens Tuesday (May 5) and runs to May 9. $12-?$20, seven-?show cycle $60-?$100. 416-?504-?7529.
From its very beginnings, theatre has been about the telling of tales and the creation of community.
Playwright Ned Dickens taps into this idea of gathering together actors and audience, blending the worlds of ancient Greece and contemporary Canada in a fascinating manner.
In City Of Wine, a seven-show cycle, Dickens traces the rise and fall of the ancient city of Thebes, from its founding by Cadmus and Harmonia to its demise at the siege of Troy.
"It was a revelation to me that this city existed for only seven generations," says Dickens. "When I discovered that, my intended trilogy became seven plays."
He first worked on the Theban tale in 1994, in an outdoor version of Oedipus performed under the Gardiner Expressway. Even cars roaring overhead didn't dampen the production's excitement.
Nightswimming Theatre then commissioned the other plays, one with the National Arts Centre, and devised an imaginative scheme to show them off. Nightswimming's Brian Quirt lined up seven theatre schools from across Canada to premiere the individual shows.
Then, just as the cycle collects a city's history, Nightswimming gathers those productions and their dozens of student actors for two play cycles in Toronto. An enormous undertaking, it's a chance to build a community of young theatre artists who might not otherwise meet or see each other's work.
While the story of Oedipus is the best-?known Theban narrative, Dickens blends the mythological tales of Pentheus, Aphrodite, Actaeon and others into his epic work in order to contextualize the Oedipus tale.
"Ezra Pound said that myth is news that stays news, and I see a relevance to these stories today," says the playwright, whose work includes such other myth-?based pieces as Icara and Beo's Bedroom.
"There's a link between Oedipus and Obama, one that involves both heroism and hubris. How many people would say, ‘My world is fucked, and I'll deal with it'? That's literally an awe-?inspiring statement, and that's why we're so impressed by Obama. He's a smart, capable dude who knows what he's taken on."
Dickens has intentionally mixed such well-?known characters as Jocasta and Zeus with seven figures he calls the Unnamed.
"I wanted to address the individuality of ordinary Thebans without getting tangled up in names," he says. "I couldn't call them Bob and Betty. Instead, I named them for resident objects in a tavern" - wine and Dionysus figure prominently in the cycle - "like Bowl, Fire, Glass and Bread.
"They change sex and relationships during the generations of the cycle, but they always interact with each other and the more famous characters, at times mirroring them."
The arc of the cycle, he adds, is that of a life, both of a person and a town, from its creation to its end.
"If I had to define myth, I'd call it the kind of story that survives its own telling. My Thebes isn't that of the Greek playwrights. It's more Our Town than their town, and I hope it will be played out again, resonating differently for future audiences."