Documentary on Peter Hall and John Barton's Tantalus Airs Dec. 30 on PBS

News   Documentary on Peter Hall and John Barton's Tantalus Airs Dec. 30 on PBS It was the event of the year in the Denver arts community in 2000, and now the complex story of the creation of the 10-hour epic Greek drama, Tantalus, will be in living rooms across the U.S., when "Tantalus: Behind the Mask" airs on PBS stations Dec. 30.
Robert Petkoff in Tantalus.
Robert Petkoff in Tantalus. (Photo by Photo by P. Switzer)

It was the event of the year in the Denver arts community in 2000, and now the complex story of the creation of the 10-hour epic Greek drama, Tantalus, will be in living rooms across the U.S., when "Tantalus: Behind the Mask" airs on PBS stations Dec. 30.

You thought the Trojan War was complex? The documentary has just as much juice and tension.

The new documentary film takes viewers behind the scenes of Peter Hall's mammoth staging of John Barton's 10-play cycle drawn from Greek stories that tell of the Trojan War. The work had a six-month rehearsal process beginning in spring 2000 at the Tony Award-honored Denver Center Theatre Company prior to its fall opening. A hybrid cast of American and international actors and designers would eventually take the show on a British tour that settled in London. The work was produced in association with The Royal Shakespeare Company.

Artistic squabbles, clashing egos, mounting tension, hurdles of time and money are all a part of the two-hour documentary. Check local listings for time and channel in your area. The program, 9 PM (ET), is presented as part of Thirteen/WNET's "Stage On Screen" series.

"This presentation — a documentary that captures the drama of making a drama — highlights 'Stage On Screen's' commitment to bring the heart and soul of theatre to the small screen," said Jac Venza, Thirteen/WNET executive producer, in a statement. "We're especially pleased about the chance to spotlight the Denver Center Theatre Company, one of the many excellent regional theatres that make up America's cultural landscape. When most people think of 'theatre,' they think of Broadway — but great stage works come from all over the country." Documentary filmmakers Benjamin Francis Phelan (producer, co-director) and Dirk Olson (director) capture the production's preparations, including rehearsals and costume fittings, marketing meetings and cast dinner breaks.

Performance footage is interwoven throughout the film, giving context to behind-the-scene details.

Among the juicier bits:

• Director Mick Gordon claims he is "finding it impossible to work in this atmosphere" and then leaves without a trace. The cast and crew view his disappearance as abandonment, calling the move "ruthless," "demoralizing," and an act of "betrayal."

• As deadlines are missed and opening night approaches, those involved grow increasingly frustrated. "We see the days disappearing, and that's a little frightening," says a set designer. A principal actor explains that, like the play's title character, he feels "there's a giant rock hanging over us and it could fall at any time."

• Creative differences unravel the decades-long relationship between director Peter Hall, founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and writer John Barton, the Company's long-time director and advisor. Hall says that Barton "made me feel if I directed it exactly as he'd written it, it would work. I know that isn't true." Barton, who spent 20 years writing the epic, is unwilling to edit his script and considers Hall disloyal for even requesting that he do so. The writer reacts to Hall's production with what he calls "cosmic bewilderment."

Opening night, Oct. 21, 2000, is the climax of the film. The ambitious work would get rave reviews from international critics.

"Tantalus: Behind the Mask" marks the first documentary on "Stage On Screen." The film runs 2 1/2 hours on video and has been trimmed to two hours for broadcast.

Director Olson is executive director of Denver Center Media, a production center that creates documentaries, dramatic programs, music specials, and series for television broadcast and is part of Denver Center for the Performing Arts (which has Denver Center Theater Company as one of its programs).

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Thirteen/WNET's "Stage On Screen" series is committed to bringing theatrical works to television. The series premiered with a live broadcast of The Roundabout Theatre Company's The Man Who Came to Dinner, starring Nathan Lane and Jean Smart, and continued with Marc Levin's film version of Anna Deavere Smith's powerful one-woman play, Twilight: Los Angeles. Most recently, "Stage On Screen" presented Far East, an original made-for television version of A.R. Gurney's hit drama, adapted for the small screen by the playwright.

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To view Playbill On-Line's October 2000 Brief Encounter interview with Sir Peter Hall, click here.

— By Kenneth Jones