A Tragedy of Epic Proportions

The Oresteia is a bold task for any theater company to take on in its entirety, and thankfully Classic Stage Company gets that, and gets it (mostly) right. With three plays presented in two parts (Part 1: Agamemnon & Elektra, and Part 2: Orestes), there are some huge flaws in CSC’s production, but there are also some wonderful moments. Most of those moments occur in Part 2: Orestes, so my advice is this: skip the flawed first half entirely and just see Part 2: Orestes, or if you must see the earlier parts, make darn sure you sit in the center section, as the two side sections aren’t worth the price of admission, even if that price is free. The traditional Oresteia, by the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, is a trilogy of plays tackling the events surrounding the aftermath of the Trojan War, specifically the curse on the house of Atreus. The first play (Agamemnon) deals with the return of King Agamemnon to his home after ten brutal years of battle, only to be viciously murdered by his vengeful wife Clytemnestra and her scheming lover Aegisthus. In the second play (Electra) Clytemnestra and Aegisthus get what’s coming to them when Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, returns from his self-imposed exile and conspires with his sister Electra and friend Pylades to avenge Agamemnon’s death. The final play (The Euminides) chronicles Orestes\' flight from the justice-seeking Furies and ultimate forgiveness at the hands of Apollo.

Rather than simply remounting another production of the Aeschylus classic, CSC Artistic Director Brian Kulick approached poet & playwright Anne Carson, who had already translated versions of Sophocles’ Electra and Euripides’ Orestes, with the idea of creating a new Oresteia from the work of all three famous Greeks. She would translate Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, the first part of his famous trilogy, and combine it with the afore-mentioned translations of Elektra and Orestes to create an Oresteia that was different and new, yet still clung roughly to the tale originally crafted by Aeschylus. So what we are presented with finally by CSC is An Oresteia translated by Anne Carson, comprised of Part 1: Agamemnon by Aiskhylos & Elektra by Sophokles, directed by Brian Kulick and Gisela Cardenas, and Part 2: Orestes by Euripides, directed by Paul Lazar. Phew!

The absolute shining star of this production is the script by Anne Carson. While maintaining a line-by-line translation from the original texts, including changing the names of the playwrights and characters to reflect a closer translation of the Greek (Clytemnestra becoming Klytaimestra, for example, and Electra becoming Elektra) Ms. Carson manages to inject new life into the words, making them fresh and contemporary. If only Mr. Kulick and his co-director Gisela Cardenas could have done the same with their direction of Part 1: Agamemnon & Elektra. For Part 2: Orestes, Paul Lazar steps in to direct and does a masterful job, struggling against the almost overwhelming obstacle that is the monstrosity of the trilogy\'s set to deliver a bizarre yet intuitively insightful production.

The biggest drawback of the entire production is the scenic design. As the audience members enter the theater, they are greeted by the sight of three men in white overalls and black aprons relentlessly scrubbing the stage (consisting mainly of unpainted plywood and 2x4 lumber, making me wonder if the budget didn’t include money to buy paint), which is coated in layers and layers of caked-on blood. No explanation is given for who these men are or why they seem to be performing a task worthy of Tantalus himself; perhaps the blood represents the many sacrifices Klytaimestra has been offering up to the gods in her husband’s absence. Whatever the case may be, there is certainly an expectation in the air, the promise of bloody deeds past, with more blood to come.

Unfortunately, the set not only looks unfinished but it is grossly unwieldy, to the point that the poor actors ended up struggling with doors that would not open or worse, refused to stay open at the appropriate times. The side-section audiences were forced to watch the action unfold through a narrow window set into a protective wall (ostensibly to keep the audience from getting splattered) or on a small screen that prevented them from viewing any detail. To solve these major design problems, the protective walls need to be removed, and the doors need to have hinged kick-stops attached.

Of course, set changes wouldn’t solve the general unwieldiness of the direction in the first two plays of this saga. Thankfully there are some bright moments if you decide to see the epic in its entirety. In Agamemnon, Steve Mellor has an all too short appearance as the titular ruler. Craig Baldwin makes a superb eleventh-hour entry as Aigisthos, and manages maniacally to save the end of the first play. Stephanie Roth Haberle seems to be well cast as Klytaimestra, bringing an appropriate Lady Mackers quality to the role, but ultimately her interpretation is too whiny and petulant for us to have any empathy for her; she often staggers about stage as if intoxicated, and during the famous beacon scene (which Peter Jackson stole to such good effect in his Return of the King film) I was just embarrassed for her. The only strong feeling I was left with by the first intermission was that of being violated, something which is done to the audience quite a few times throughout the course of the first play, with flung props, pointed guns, and even a hose brought out to douse Kassandra (played with wide-eyed insanity by Doan Ly), which seemed a nod to Ivan Van Hove’s Misanthrope and little more.

The second play, Elektra, is only slightly more bearable, due mainly to the (no pun intended) electrifying performance of Annika Boras as Elektra. The whole conceit of the second play (chorus as sunbathers around a swimming-pool) only served to remind me of last year’s Oedipus Loves You by Irish punk-rock theater company Pan Pan, who set their Greek tragedy in a middle-class backyard complete with barbecue and children’s wading pool. It worked brilliantly for Pan Pan, but for this production it just falls flat. For example, it’s never quite clear why Elektra keeps jars of mud on her swimming-pool patio. Or why one of the sun-bathing chorus members starts prophesying to the sound of a tinkling piano, absent-mindedly tossing Tarot cards into the pool from her perch on a diving board. Luckily it is over quickly enough, and we can get to the truly interesting matter contained in Part 2: Orestes.

A word about this final act before we begin. The post-murder tale of the pursuit of Orestes by the Euminides (or Furies as they are more commonly known here) is bizarre and often problematic to stage. It is concerned with the Big Ideas of Justice and Family, and as such it doesn’t have concrete events like violent deaths to give it a point of entry (although it can only happen because of the violent deaths of the previous tales); as such, I usually find it the most difficult part of the story to “get into”, but also thematically the most interesting. I think it’s a bold choice to bring on another director to deal with such heady themes, and I applaud Brian Kulick and CSC for choosing Paul Lazar to helm this particular piece.

Undoubtedly Part 2: Orestes is influenced by both Mac Wellman and Big Dance Theater, both of whom director Paul Lazar has strong connections to; you can see this influence clearly in the casting of actors like Steve Mellor, David Neumann, Karinne Keithley, and Jess Barbagallo, all of whom have worked with Mac and/or Big Dance, and all of whom bring a delightful energy to the stage.

Steve Mellor is delightful as Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother and possible savior to his nephew Orestes, played stoically by Mickey Solis. Annika Boras returns as Elektra, playing the beat-poet to the hilt. David Neumann is entrancing to watch, both as he channels Tom Waites and as he dances, alone or with Karinne Keithley. Ms. Keithley dances and lends her ethereal voice in song as Chorus, together with Dan Hurlin. There is a particularly touching scene wherein the Chorus recites a cry to heaven first in Greek, then in translation, together with some magical visual aides. The multi-talented Keithley also plays Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and Helen (yes, that Helen!), and victim of a certain famous pair of siblings’ kidnapping plot.

Jess Barbagallo returns in this segment, once again playing Pylades, Orestes “silent friend” of Elektra, now no longer so silent, delivering an impassioned justification for the murder (“assassination”) of Helen. Eric Dyer (of Radiohole fame) makes an appearance quite literally as the Deux Ex Machina (“God in the Machine”) Apollo, who shows up at the end to set everything aright. I would have liked to have actually seen Eric’s brief moment on stage, but since my view was obstructed, I can only assume from the looks of those audience members lucky enough to see it that it was glorious.

Set in a dream-like reality reminiscent of a beat-poet’s café, the only thing missing was a hookah (actually, there probably was a hookah, I just missed it because of the obstructed view). Combining music, dance, a rhythmic delivery, and earnest performances, this final play of An Oresteia almost made up for the tediousness of the first two plays. Given the choice, I would highly recommend skipping Part 1: Agamemnon & Elektra, as there is always the library or Internet if you want to know the details of the Trojan War or the curse on the House of Atreus, and purchasing tickets to <An Oresteia Part 2: Orestes, a thought provoking examination of human nature that packs a humorous punch.

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