Electra sits center stage in a green spotlight with a pack of Marlboroughs on the table in front of her. She is surrounded by unmoving men with bloody bandages, in wheelchairs and on hospital beds. "You could say," she observes while looking up and taking a drag on her cigarette, "there is no form of anguish, however terrible, that human beings might not have to bear." It's a near-verbatim quote from Euripides's Orestes, the inspiration for Charles Mee's Orestes 2.0. The script then slips seamlessly back into Mee's original words. "Well," Electra sighs, "there's a way of putting things in order."
But order is not the aim of Mee's frenetic and high-energy play, now at the HERE Arts Center. While Mee makes liberal use of the ancient Greek source text, he also incorporates quotes from Guillaume Apollinaire poems and Soap Opera Digest articles into his own writing. He splices all these pieces together into a gritty and darkly humorous collage of a show that sweeps you into a scene, only to push you out in the next brisk transition.
The play draws on the famous Orestes myth, picking up the story at the height of the action. After discovering that his mother and her lover have killed his father, Agamemnon, the prince Orestes kills them both. Orestes 2.0 raises questions about the role his sister Electra played in goading him to action and about the punishments they each deserve.
Mee writes in verse, and his command of poetry is the driving force in his plays, which range from violent adaptations of Greek classics (Bacchae 2.0) to contemporary love stories like Big Love and True Love. Critics can accept his appropriations of Molière and Shakespeare because Mee's unique metaphors and fluid language are often on par with the established masters. (Another factor that deflects accusations of plagiarism: Mee makes all of his works available online at charlesmee.org and encourages young writers to borrow from the plays.)
But HERE's production of Orestes 2.0 loses most of Mee's verses in a chaotic competition for volume. The script is by no means calm, but at times director José Zayas seems to lose control of his own stage. The script's themes are loud, but the production bordered on deafening.
Mee calls for a vague setting with hospital beds, and Zayas sets the scene in what appears to be the mental health wing of a veterans' hospital. The problems this raises have nothing to do with the set. In fact, designer Ryan Elliot Kravetz makes effective use of the small stage with a few beds, wheelchairs, and microphones. A strategically angled mirror allows for cinematic bedside scenes, and the connotation-loaded red tape adds dimension to the sparse stage.
The psych ward setting falters because it limits the actors to playing crazy. Orestes and Electra, played by Bobby Moreno and Barrett Doss, respectively, display obvious talents as physical actors as they throw themselves against walls and ease into interpretive dances throughout the show. But their overly stylized speeches are difficult to understand from the start of the play, which is already highly charged following the recent matricide. From there, the emotions and decibel levels only rise, so that by the play's end, more than half of the actor's lines are delivered in incomprehensible shouts.
Although the staging quashes the lead characters' audibility, it does provide an excellent function for a modern-day Greek chorus of nurses and patients. Detached from the central action but elaborating on the environment of a postwar world, their speeches riff on subjects ranging from masturbation to imagination. Particularly engaging is Daniel Manley's lighthearted speech about multiple homicides. But even their words dissipate among the overlapping monologues and a background of recorded techno beats.
The choice to prioritize emotion over language in the play sacrifices more than just the script's poetry. Mee's relevant themes about state corruption and his subtle satire aimed at a hotheaded rising generation are lost in the literal fog that covers the stage. The green lights and smoke machine may transport you to another world, but they deny how similar this world is to our own.
At times the production seemed to carry the audience into a war zone. In one of the many climaxes in the second half, an overly excited actor nearly stepped off the stage, smashing a footlight with his boot and scattering glass off the stage. At another moment, an overhead speaker visibly shook with the radio voice-over it was projecting, threatening the closely seated audience. While Mee's script blurs the distinctions between ancient Greece and American society, Zayas's production sometimes blurs the chaos in the script with the confusion onstage. The results may ring in your ears more than they resonate in your thoughts.