These marathon plays can deliver some epic rewards

The Hypocrites' 'All Our Tragic' runs over 12 straight hours. There are some payoffs in really long plays.

By 11 p.m. Sunday night, the roughly two dozen cast members of The Hypocrites' production of Sean Graney's "All Our Tragic" had been together with their deeply loyal audience (and their hardworking crew) for 12 straight hours. They'd eaten pita bread together, talked together, suffered cramps together, drank wine and coffee together and, most important, wholly shared the experience of imbibing all the extant Greek tragedies in one massive artistic bite.

The usual boundaries between performer and consumer had broken down on Milwaukee Avenue in the Chicago neighborhood of Wicker Park. Graney was walking around handing out fruit. You could read on the actors' faces real gratitude that people had come and stayed for that long, despite plenty of chances to flee. In this instance, mere presence was quite a statement of support. There was a feeling not unlike the end of a marathon race, aptly enough for a show with classical origins. Clearly, the actors understood that their show was almost as exhausting to watch as it was to perform.

Not only was this a pretty decent approximation of how these plays were first performed, all-day-festival style, but it was a reminder of the power of really long shows.

There have been other marathons in Chicago. "Gatz," which was produced by New York's Elevator Repair Service and presented in Chicago by the Museum of Contemporary Art, contained about 61/2 hours of performance within an eight-hour frame, including breaks. (As a point of comparison, "All Our Tragic" was about nine hours of watching and three hours of breaks.) In 2003, the now-defunct Famous Door Theatre Company embarked on a six-hour version of "The Cider House Rules," although it opened two parts separately. Both "Gatz" and "Cider House" are seared in my memory.

So are a few other moments in Chicago theater when ambition raged, such as Court Theatre's five-hour show "The Romance Cycle" (a combo of William Shakespeare's "Cymbeline" and "Pericles" in 2003). Or the fabulous twin productions of Alan Ayckbourn's "House" and "Garden" (two plays that showed you the same events from two different places, with the actors running from theater to theater) that opened the Goodman Theatre more than a decade ago, and that remain, collectively, one of the best Goodman productions in that theater's long history.

In 2009, the Goodman's highly provocative Eugene O'Neill Festival included the Neo-Futurists' 51/2-hour version of "Strange Interlude," a show so long and strange that it seemed to send some audience members over the edge. (There was, I recall, a loud protest from the seats.) And, more recently, there was Robert Falls' "The Iceman Cometh," a five-hour show that was surely the best feast of Chicago acting since they first opened the banquet hall around these parts.

Far, far away from Fallsian aesthetics was another memorably long Chicago show, "Tony Clifton and the Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra," performed in 2008 by the terrifying Bob Zmuda, just around the corner from the Den Theatre, where you can see "All Our Tragic." I often cite this show when giving talks, as it's the only show I can recall ever leaving while the performance was still going on, basically because, after five hours, I had figured out that it was not going to end until I did. By the time I staggered out into the dead of the Chicago night, only three other suckers remained.

I didn't see "The Ring Cycle" at the Building Stage in 2010 (another magnum opus from a small Chicago company and a play, not the monster Wagnerian opera), but the Tribune's Nina Metz dryly observed in this publication that this six-hour attraction offered "more Norse mythology than you can shake a Playbill at." Indeed. "The Ring Cycle" is especially worth noting here, for, like "Cider House," this was the work of a small theater without massive resources or the festival mentality.

For the record, I've spent nine to 10 straight hours in the theater on several other occasions, usually while seeing four plays a day at the Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, or, on busy weekends, taking in a matinee, an evening show and a late-night attraction. Plenty of my readers, I know, go to Stratford and see two three-hour plays a day for a week. During the Olympic summer in London, you could watch one Shakespeare play after another at the Globe Theatre, each performed by a theater company from a different part of the world.

But while acknowledging all of these epic precedents, both local and national, "All Our Tragic" is, I think (and I've been thinking about this almost nonstop for the past couple of days), the longest single (serious) show of my theatergoing life.

I know it is a mashup of many plays, but if you go and see it, and the commitment is rewarding, you'll very much feel like you are watching one show, the vision of one adapter-director with more than his share of some crucial artistic qualities when it comes to doing Chicago theater: ambition and no fear whatsoever of the really big picture.

THEATER LOOP IN STRATFORD: Join Chris Jones and The Theater Loop on a getaway to Ontario, Canada. "Press Pass: Theater Loop Goes to Stratford Festival" includes bus transportation from Chicago to the festival and tickets to four productions, plus backstage tours and other extras. Check out

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