Finding the “underlying heartbeat”: Frank Cox O’Connell talks Wedding at Aulis and his other Soulpepper work

Scott Sneddon

Scott Sneddon

Scott Sneddon is Senior Editor on SesayArts Magazine where he is also a critic and contributor.

Frank Cox-O’Connell

Little-known fact: Soulpepper’s Frank Cox O’Connell was once a drummer.

You’re more likely to know him as the versatile and award-winning actor, musician and director who, chameleon-like, has taken on diverse acting and directing roles at Soulpepper since his time in the Soulppper Academy. In January and February of this year, you may have been charmed by his turn as the tuneful, wide-eyed, guitar-plucking narrator of family musical Rose. In a decidedly darker turn, he is on stage now as the menacing Menelaus in Wedding at Aulis. And this summer and fall, he returns to directing: first, with Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love; and then with the return of concert Riverboat Coffee House, which he co-created last fall with Slaight Family Music Director Mike Ross for a sold-out run.  

If he can take on this range of on-stage and off-stage roles in such diverse productions, he’s clearly talented. Speaking with him, it was also clear that he’s deeply enthusiastic about what Soulpepper is up to, starting with Wedding at Aulis, a reimagined version of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, a tragedy from ~406 BC. It turns out that it’s a great time for fresh looks at ancient Greek drama. In January, we saw Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho) and Saga Collectif reinvent Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians as Iphigenia and the Furies (on Taurian Land) –  think of it as an alternate universe sequel to Iphigenia at Aulis. Later in April, we’ll see his reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone at Young People’s Theatre. In terms of Wedding at Aulis, Cox-O’Connell notes that Sina Gilani, the playwright (or “Adaptor”, per the Soulpepper program notes) “really loves the Greeks and is trying to . . . be very respectful of Euripides. But there’s a fresh take, especially on who gets a voice – from which characters we hear the story – which excites me.”

The play depicts events near the very start of the Trojan War, and Cox-O’Connell offers a conversational and pointed synopsis of the backstory for spectators unfamiliar with the play: “The story . . . takes place a couple thousand years ago in a Greek camp on the way to the Trojan War . . . The Greeks are going to fight because this woman Helen has left her Greek husband to run away to Troy with her new boyfriend, a guy named Paris. I play her pissed-off husband Menelaus. So all of these powerful Greek men, notably Menelaus’ brother Agamemnon, are freaking out that a woman has made a choice, and a choice that they don’t like. And so they’ve stirred up this nationalist pride – they kind of invent the whole idea of Greece as a nation – and go off to war to kill people for ten years. But on the way they run out of wind. And God, or maybe just some guy at church, says that my brother Agamemnon has to kill his daughter” so that the gods will restore the wind, and they can sail to Troy. “But then his wife and daughter show up at this military camp, Aulis, on the pretence of her getting married. And now the men have to explain to the women that they have made some decisions of behalf of the women. There’s a bit of a struggle around who actually has agency in a world that’s not only patriarchal, but also now nationalist and colonial.”

Stuart Hughes & Frank Cox-O’Connell; photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

He closes with dry understatement: “And no matter what happens, it’s probably not going to end well . . .” As Cox-O’Connell makes clear, the stakes in the reimagined Wedding at Aulis are unimaginably high – and they are emphatically gendered. Indeed, as Menelaus, Cox-O’Connell’s role is to pour gasoline on the flames of the core conflict. On stage for just 7 or 8 minutes, he is a feral whirlwind of male insecurity, violence and coercion, circling and lashing out at breakneck speed. Like brother Agamemnon (Stuart Hughes), he moves like quicksilver from enraged certainty that Iphigenia must be sacrificed for the common good, and lamentation about the “unfair system” which requires it.

Their bluster and argumentation is encircled by a chorus of women who observe, ruminate and question. And just beyond them sit the audience. In two close rows surrounding the stage, they in turn interrogate and evaluate these men’s actions and these women’s reactions. At the same time, the play opens and closes with three more women: the otherworldly fates, who select the starting and end points to the tale. The upshot of this staging and selection is to erase Cox-O’Connell’s wild Menelaus and Hughes’ stiffer Agamemnon. They are contested, critiqued and discarded by the weight of these women’s gaze . . . and Cox-O’Connell is just fine with that. He explains that Euripedes’ original is often conflated to the “tension between family and state and, by extension, a fight between honour and strategy”, whereas “Sina’s adaptation sidesteps a lot of this conversation” to question “the whole patriarchal decision-making apparatus” by focusing on the problem “that these men have created for themselves”, “the very real obstacles” that persist today,  as well as “our efforts” to address them – including dangerous “half-measures.”

In a few short weeks, we’ve come a very long way from Rose’s sly troubadour! Praised for his versatility, Cox-O’Connell shrugs. All of his work is “just different forms of storytelling” with different inflections: “For sure, the tone of each of those shows is totally different: Rose was a wacky, mischievous family musical; Wedding is unapologetically Greek theatre; it’s intense dramatic rhetoric; Fool For Love is poetic but high-octane realist American theatre; the concerts are documentary smashed up against the spectacle of virtuosic musicianship.” He grants that “It’s awesome how they all take a really different approach. But what I am doing inside of them is usually the same, just taking an audience through a story or an argument or event.”

And here is where the drummer makes himself known. In Wedding at Aulis, the Fates announce at the start of the play, “We are not the story . . . but we hold its rhythm”. As actor, musician or director, Cox-O’Connell knows that he, too, is not the story . . . but he works to hold its beat. As a drummer, “a lot of the way I think about acting and writing and directing and certainly playing other instruments comes from drumming: what’s the underlying heartbeat that’s keeping things moving, where does the crowd wants to focus, when are they ready to listen, and when do they need a release, how to set up expectation with rhythm, and how to compose with rests – like leaving things out in order to say something.” It’s all music to him: his process is to find the backbeat, and to play it – or play off it – as appropriate. 

Wedding at Aulis, playing a sold-out run at Soulpepper until April 14, is a riveting 90 minutes of Greek tragedy writ large and loud, urgent and relevant. And Cox-O’Connell, whether on stage in Wedding at Aulis or directing Fool for Love and Riverboat Coffee House, remains an artist worth watching and hearing, as he supports “the underlying heartbeat that’s keeping things moving” at Soulpepper.

Wedding at Aulis Chorus; photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

News You Can Use

What: Wedding at Aulis by Sina Gilani; a version of Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides; directed by Alan Dilworth
Performed by Ghazal Azarbad, Derek Boyes, Alana Bridgewater, Leah Cherniak, Sascha Cole, Frank Cox-O’connell, Raquel Duffy, Sabastien Heins, Stuart Hughes, Brenna MacCrimmon, Nancy Palk, Nicole Power, Alice Snaden, Sarah Wilson, Jennifer Villaverde

Who: Audiences 14 years of age and older

When: On stage until April 14, 2019; Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

Where: Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: soulpepper.ca

© Scott Sneddon, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019

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