'Sweeney Todd' star recalls agony, ecstasy of 'Tantalus'

Robert Petkoff Tantalus

Robert Petkoff appeared as Achilles in the DCPA’s co-production of ‘Tantalus’ with the Royal Shakespeare Company. 

 Robert Petkoff Sweeney ToddSweeney Todd isn’t the first time actor Robert Petkoff has been seen slinging blades with abandon across a Denver Center stage.

Petkoff, currently slicing away eight times a week as theatre’s most famous cutter, played the knife-wielding Achilles in Tantalus back in 2000 in the same Stage Theatre. That was a massive, 10-play co-production between the DCPA Theatre Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company that is billed to this day as the largest undertaking in theatre history.

“At the time, of course, I didn’t think of it that way,” said Petkoff, who has received overwhelming audience and critical acclaim for his present performance in Sweeney Todd. “I was just happy to have a chance to work with (Royal Shakespeare Company founder) Peter Hall and (writer) John Barton, both of whom were giants in theatre.”

DCPA founder Donald R. Seawell brought the Trojan War cycle to Denver at a cost of $8 million. It was created by a hybrid crew of American and international actors and designers.

“Nothing has come along like it, and it probably won’t ever happen again,” said Seawell, who died last year at 103. “It brought more attention to the Denver Center than anything else we have ever done. It brought critics from all over the world. It brought people from more than 40 countries.”

Robert Petkoff quote

Tantalus was an epic spectacle, on-stage and off. The PBS documentary Tantalus: Behind the Mask chronicled the six-month rehearsal process through the Denver debut and subsequent British tour. The film captured the artistic squabbles, clashing egos, mounting tension, hurdles of time and money – and spectacular artistic achievement.  

The creative process destroyed the friendship between Barton and Hall after Hall’s requests for rewrites. Instead Barton returned to London, where he sat as the Denver marathon was being rapturously received. Meanwhile, as opening approached, frustrated co-director Mick Gordon disappeared without a trace. The cast and crew told the documentary team that Gordon’s flight was no less than a ruthless, demoralizing act of abandonment.

“I think working on Tantalus helped me understand the opening line in A Tale of Two Cities: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,’ ” Petkoff said this week. “There were moments that felt like agony and betrayal, and more moments that were sheer ecstasy and filled with the joy of storytelling in an exciting and original way.”

Robert Petkoff Sense and Sensibility

Here’s more of our conversation with Petkoff, who returned to the DCPA in 2013 to appear in the world premiere of Sense & Sensibility, The Musical. He continues to play Sweeney Todd through May 15, though all performances are sold out:

Robert Petkoff TantalusJohn Moore: What was your role in the story?

Robert Petkoff: I played Achilles, his son Neoptolemus, Orestes and Aegisthus.  One of the great things about being in masks  – which I really resisted in the beginning – was the ability to truly transform in the audience’s eyes. My wife told me of witnessing two men arguing between plays about whether the role of Achilles and Neoptolemus were played by two different actors. The voice and physicality of the characters were very different: one a brutal warrior, the other a very young, effeminate boy. That’s, of course, very flattering to an actor. But it was the masks that really made that happen. The audience can project onto the mask a face they want or expect to see. That enables an actor to seem like two different people.

John Moore: What was opening night like when you had audience members from 40 states and seven foreign countries?

Robert Petkoff: I wondered what the hell people would make of this show.  We were all so close to the material and had lived with it for so long I don’t think any of us could tell whether or not it would succeed.  

John Moore: In the end, was it good art?

Robert Petkoff TantalusRobert Petkoff: I can’t really say whether it was successful art or not. There were so many people who told me they thought it was extraordinary. But the nature of art is that for every person who is moved by something there is someone who sniffs at it and feels it was a trifle and not worth their time.  I will say this though: There were those who came to the marathon performances and saw one-third of the play, then had lunch together, saw another third, then had dinner together, and finally came back for the last third of the 10 1/2 hour event. At the end of those marathon days the energy that came from the audience to the actors when we finally removed our masks and took our final bows is something I will never forget and probably will never experience in my lifetime again as an actor. For both the audience and the actors it was truly extraordinary and unique and powerful.  That’s what I will always carry with me.

John Moore: What’s your craziest story of an onstage happening during the run?

Robert Petkoff: The event I remember the most happened during the tour in the United Kingdom. At the end of one of the plays, I was in a “wedding dress” that I thought looked a bit like a red Tilt-a-Whirl.  It was a very dramatic costume.  At the blackout, someone was supposed to guide me with a flashlight off the stage into the wings, but at this particular venue – no one did. I saw a light and walked toward it and fell 5 feet off the front of the stage and landed on my back. Fortunately the enormous amount of fabric and the structure of the costume helped break my fall. The light I had walked toward was an exit sign. I got up as quickly as I could and walked toward that exit. Still in blackout. When I opened the door, it flooded the auditorium with light so the entire audience could see me trying to escape. In my panic, I tried to go straight out the door, but the costume was so wide, I kept hitting the doorframe and couldn’t get out.  With the house lights coming up, I finally turned sideways and shimmied out the door.

John Moore: What was it like being back on that same stage to star in Sweeney Todd?

Robert Petkoff: Stepping into the theatre again to do Sweeney Todd, I had a moment that I told my wife about later that night. I said to her that everything I went through backstage and in rehearsals in the nine months that we worked on and performed Tantalus in Denver all seemed so dramatic and important at the time. Now that I was back so many years later, what seemed important was that we created this unique work. Everything else seemed so inconsequential and trivial.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Sweeney Todd: Information

  • 270x270-sweeney-toddMusic and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by High Wheeler (adapted by Christopher Bond); musical adaptation by DeVotchKa
  • Through May 15
  • Stage Theatre
  • Grammy-nominated Denver band DeVotchKa takes on the legendary demon barber of Fleet Street, serving up a reinvention of Sondheim’s musical thriller. Hell-bent on revenge, Sweeney Todd takes up with his enterprising neighbor in a devilish plot to slice their way through London’s upper crust. Justice will be served — along with audacious humor and bloody good thrills.
  • Tickets:  SOLD OUT

  • Previous NewsCenter coverage of Sweeney Todd:
    Theatre Company giddily going down rabbit hole in 2015-16
    DeVotchKa frontman promises a Sweeney Todd that’s ‘loud and proud’
    DCPA announces DeVotchka-infused Sweeney Todd casting
    ​Where the band meets the blade: Rehearsals open
    Co-stars on bringing DeVotchKa’s fresh blood to Sondheim
    Video sneak peek with DeVotchKa
    Five things we learned at Perspectives: Use a dull blade!
    Interview, video: Sweeney Todd actors sing for Denver Actors Fund
    Opening Night photo gallery and story

    Previous Sweeney Todd cast profiles:
    Meet Danny Rothman
    Meet Jean McCormick
    ​Meet Daniel Berryman 
    Meet Michael Brian Dunn

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