Greek tragedy as performance art

Walking into Third Child: Orestes Revisited, which is playing as part of the Fringe Festival through August 20, you get the impression that the action is occurring regardless of your presence. A man lies center stage as four women sit encircling him. One by one, the women get up and, with slow, fluid movements, form a tableau around the collapsed figure. Each woman’s eyes stare out in an intense, fixed gaze at something only she can see. Thus begins the intriguing and a little unnerving Third Child, which was conceived and directed by Maria Porter. What follows is what one might expect from a piece labeled performance art and based upon ancient Greek mythology. The story of Orestes’ murder of his mother, aided by his sister Electra, and his subsequent mental deterioration is more suggested than told. In a series of often aesthetically pleasing tableaus, Orestes (Morgan Hooper) is repeatedly encircled by the four women who both plague and shape his life: Clytemnestra (Yesenia Tromp), Iphigenia (Maria Barcia), Electra (Athena Colón), and a fury (Lesley Scheiber).

The women, who are clad in overlapping fabrics in cool earth tones, are wrapped in various places in bits of netting to symbolize the prevalent theme of entrapment in the original mythology of Orestes. The four are all strong performers, delivering lines accompanied by a series of sometimes graceful, sometimes spasmodic gestures that seem part modern dance, part yoga, and part charades (it is performance art, after all). All also have lovely voices, opening and closing the piece in song, just as any ancient Greek chorus would in the days of the work’s original author, Euripides.

Orestes is often nothing more than a puppet for these four women to manipulate; at one point almost literally a puppet, as he mindlessly responds to the commands “jump!” and “fall!” on cue. Unfortunately, Hooper never fully embodies the rage, grief, and guilt that should wrack Orestes; towards the end of the show, he begins to tap into some of that extreme emotion, only to pull away.

The piece closes with the four women, with eyes both haunted and haunting, staring into the audience. They are bathed in a bloody light and sing the second of two intentionally anachronistic spirituals that touch upon the theme of water (the first is “Wade in the Water”). As they are unable to stop Orestes from exiting through the audience, they stand both powerful and powerless and sing both an invitation and a plea: “Oh sisters, let’s go down/Let’s go down to the river to pray.”

Though Third Child may not appeal to everyone, those to whom it appeals will find this work very appealing indeed.

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