Unfreeze my tableaux

The Rape of the Sabine Women arrests and exhausts

REVIEW Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation's epic 2006 video opera The Rape of the Sabine Women is a sprawling and beguiling reinterpretation of classical myth, art history, and film-as-sculpture. Working improvisationally on the scale of a Cecil B. DeMille production, Sussman — no relation to this critic — and her international cast and crew unfreeze Peter Paul Rubens' and Jacques-Louis David's grand historical tableaux of the oft-painted episode from Rome's founding, in which the women of the Sabine tribe, having been abducted by Roman men, persuade their captors and rescuers to lay down their arms.

Sussman's retelling swaps Italy for Greece and loosely swathes this antiquarian narrative in mid-century cool. The Roman men — in skinny suits befitting Cold War spies — brood within the desolate classicism of Berlin's Pergamon Museum. After an exhilarating abduction scene crosscut amid the stalls of Athens' meat market, the Sabine women lounge around a modern seaside bungalow like so many extras from an Antonioni film. But while love or the Stockholm syndrome — saved the day and ensured the future of empire in the original story, Sussman's far more ambiguous finale lingers on the costs of such an intervention. While the film is visually arresting and at times even exhausting, Jonathan Bepler's stunning score — composed of echoing coughs, scuffed museum floors, the rhythmic fall of butchers' knives on wood, shimmering clouds of bouzoukis, and the final tidal wave of a swelling 800-person choir — interacts with the images in a way that gives unexpected heft and affective depth to the constant stream of eye candy. Expect an immersive experience at the piece's San Francisco Museum of Modern Art premiere as cast and choir members — and that fleet of bouzouki players — create a live extension of the film's soundtrack.

THE RAPE OF THE SABINE WOMEN Opening screenings and performances Thurs/1–Fri/2, 8 p.m., $15–$20; screening and panel discussion Sun/3, 3 p.m., $7–$10; screenings May 9–June 27, 3 p.m., free with museum admission. Phyllis Wattis Theater, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St, SF. (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org

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