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PBS takes an artistic look at staging a play.

Behind the Curtain

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Don't you just love niche television? If you look hard enough, you can find a program that seems to have been designed with you — and maybe only you — in mind, whether your interest lies in redneck cooking or perfecting your golf game, pet oncology or the herbs of Provence. When you find a niche TV show you like, chances are you'll be the only one in your whole family, maybe even your whole neighborhood, who seems to like it.

That's the way it is with PBS-TV's "Stage on Screen" special "Tantalus: Behind the Mask." If you don't know the difference between dramaturgy and dromedary, you won't give a fig. But if you do, two hours of pure bliss awaits.

Just about a year ago, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Denver Center Theatre Company embarked on a project of breathtaking scope: a monumental, 10-play cycle retelling the mythic tales of the Trojan War. Director Sir Peter Hall, founder of the RSC, and writer John Barton, the RSC's director and writer, set out to create a 10-hour marathon drama that would be performed either all in one day (with breaks for communal meals) or over the course of two days.

"Tantalus" debuted in Denver on Oct. 21 of last year before moving on to London. The opening-night audience was mesmerized and offered up thunderous applause. The New Yorker called it "theatrical magic." The New York Times said it was "a gourmand's banquet of virtuosic writing and stagecraft." Variety labeled it "an exceptional theatrical event."

Audiences delighted in the warring factions, the power struggles, the love, the betrayal and the victories they saw onstage. But they never suspected — as they shouldn't have — that those same forces had been at work for six months as Hall brought Barton's script, 15 years in the making, to life. The struggles that preceded opening night were as epic as those the audience saw in the theater.

In "Tantalus: Behind the Mask," filmmakers Ben Phelan and Dirk Olson have done a remarkable job of documenting the creation of a historic work of dramatic storytelling. What makes their film work so well is their own flair for dramatic storytelling.

For those interested in the "how do they do that?" aspect of mounting a theatrical production, Phelan and Olson document rehearsals, costume fittings, marketing meetings, prop and set creation, and even a search through a junkyard for brake drums that could be used to augment the orchestra's percussion section. ("Tantalus" is an unusual work in more ways than length and scope.)

And for those interested in the "why did they do that?" aspect, Phelan and Olson were ready with their cameras as Hall and Barton battled over the script; as one of the production's three directors quit in the middle of rehearsals; as deadlines were missed and as mounting frustration threatened to stop the project in its tracks.

"Tantalus," the epic theatrical production, for all its brilliance, is not for everyone. The casual theatergoer will find "The Producers" more to his or her taste. Likewise, "Tantalus: Behind the Mask," for all its exemplary style, is not for everyone. But those who love theater will find it to be a thing of joy indeed.



Debuts 9-11 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 30, on PBS-TV.

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