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The Meaning of Greek Drama

Coming to terms with tragedy, both ancient and modern, in Washington, D.C.

By New York City
Cynthia Martells in Antigone at The Shakespeare Theatre(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Cynthia Martells in Antigone at The Shakespeare Theatre
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Never again will Americans need a program insert to help grasp the punch that's packed by Greek tragedy. But plays like Oedipus, Antigone, and Agamemnon don't hand us easy answers or pat messages; they force on us a bundle of conflicting ways to be both right and wrong. If you've had a single conversation in the past two weeks regarding vengeance, tolerance, the mutability of public opinion, the reality of fanaticism, or how losing a family member can wipe out any sense of business as usual, you are in the middle of the heightened situation these plays take on. As playwright Kenneth Cavander's essay "The Meaning of Greek Drama" reminds us, the plays are "barbaric and intimate at the same time. " And yet, relevant or not, their conventions pose a more complicated kind of challenge than do their raw themes.

Washington's two flagship resident theatres opened their seasons with reworkings of well-known Greek tragedies. Arena Stage's artistic director Molly Smith took on Agamemnon and His Daughters, Cavander's compelling adaptation of six source plays. Michael Kahn, artistic director of The Shakespeare Theatre, tackled The Oedipus Plays (all three of them) in new translations by Nicholas Rudall. Two litmus tests for Greek plays are the choice of translation and the issue of what to do with the chorus, and these productions diverge wildly on both counts: Smith and Cavander achieve intimacy and immediacy without being trendy, while Kahn via Rudall opts for formalism in what is sometimes called a "concept" production.

Agamemnon and His Daughters is an epic of war and peace told through the story of one powerful family. King Agamemnon sacrifices his eldest daughter to Artemis, the goddess responsible for deciding whether the army will set sail or rot on a windless coast. Queen Klytaimestra (Cavander uses the Greek spellings for the characters, hopeful that ignoring the more familiar Latin versions will help erase the layers of received opinion surrounding the plays) never forgives her husband for killing their child and, upon the king's return from ten years at war, she masterminds his murder. Their exiled son, Orestes, comes home to avenge his father's death, vengeance for which his sister Elektra has longed. Orestes is acquitted by Apollo and Athena, who work out a justice system in which matricide is an acceptable response to the worse crime of patricide; the pair of gods then plague him to retrieve a religious icon from far away and restore it to their native land. In this final quest, Orestes is reunited with his sacrificed sister, resuscitated as a priestess. The formerly angry Artemis proclaims that it's time to end the cycle of vengeance and get back to the business of being citizens and family members.

Why should we swallow this fairy tale? Cavander answers the question in two ways. First, he allows us to see divinity as a construct: The chorus asks, "What if we exist at the mercy of forces like 'I need' and 'I want' to which we give the names of gods?" Second, although only Aeschylus among the source playwrights used a chorus that argued among itself, Cavander features multiple perspectives within the community as a hallmark of his work. Moreover, while the chorus in Aeschylus' Agamemnon is comprised of old men who did not go off to the Trojan War, the Arena production uses women. Watching a group from the plant/harvest/marry/mother cycle contend with the royal acts of sacrifice and vengeance provides a discomfiting and compelling jolt of reality.

Smith's casting brings home both the fallible, credible humanity as well as the mythic status of each character. Agamemnon is a soldier, not an elegant speechifier, and actor Jack Willis could be Archie Bunker's educated brother. He's nobody's fool, but he's also no Prince Charming. Rough around the edges, this Agamemnon realizes early on that the army's restlessness and the nation's lust to punish the enemy will take over whether he sacrifices his daughter or not. Public opinion that segues into mob psychology will find a way to accommodate itself. Gail Grate's Klytaimestra is having none of this, and why should she? Even when the war ends, the hero king and the single representative soldier can't quite process that chauvinism and rape are not acceptable on the home front. The herald grabs one of the chorus women; Agamemnon gives his concubine a long, open-mouthed kiss in front of his wife. For this, he killed their first-born?

Grate's high dudgeon devolves into alcoholism in the second half of the play. Daughter Elektra (sarcastically played by Natascia Diaz) can't pardon her mother for killing her father. Although Elektra was not privy to the decision-making process concerning her sacrificed sister, she sees herself as historian, memory, and witness. Understandably, Klytaimestra thinks Elektra's history is faulty. You can see the problem. Witnessing and truth telling are also problems for Kassandra, the concubine who has been blessed with the ability to foresee the future and cursed with the promise that no one will believe her. Tsidii Le Loka is the most exotic Kassandra I have ever seen; as costumed by Lindsay W. Davis, she appears swathed in blue and gold brocade, a huge turban that looks like a fabulous sculpture atop her impossibly long neck, in Turkish slippers with curled toes. This Kassandra shifts between offering lucid facts in conversational speech (which the chorus attends) and an altered state of bug-eyed trance and piercing vocal pyrotechnics (which they refuse). Is the voice of reason the only voice of truth?

Framing the familiar Oresteia (the Agamemnon/Clytemnestra/Orestes/Elektra story as told in three plays by Aeschylus) and Elektra (well-known in both Sophocles' and Euripides' versions) with the less-familiar Iphigenia at Aulis and Iphigenia at Tauris provides both background and closure for the central story. Cavander is not the first playwright to do this; Ellen McLaughlin's Iphigenia and Other Daughters comes to mind. In the present version, as in the originals, the beginning is probably the most compelling section. Agamemnon is caught in the mob demands of his country while the teenage Iphigenia is swept up in the idea of noble sacrifice. Theirs are psychological and social dilemmas with immediate resonance.

The older, wiser, and homesick Iphigenia, set free by a goddess who has tired of vengeance, poses a subtler interpretive challenge. Is it mere battle fatigue that allows us to lay down arms? What might it take to sooner activate the forgiving goddess within, or to disable her vengeful side--or, perhaps hardest of all, to heed Kassandra, a daughter of the enemy but a daughter nonetheless?

Avery Brooks and Petronia Paleyin Oedipus the Kingat The Shakespeare Theatre(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Avery Brooks and Petronia Paley
in Oedipus the King
at The Shakespeare Theatre
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
No one can accuse Michael Kahn of failing to listen to many voices in conceiving his production of The Oedipus Plays, the umbrella title for a condensed but still very long rendering of Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. A research trip to Zimbabwe, collaboration with choreographer Marlies Yearby and composer Baikida Carroll, three casting directors, and the usual copious program notes all add up to a carefully wrought, elaborate, expensive, and dazzling production. Yet, despite the African setting, the star power of Avery Brooks and Earle Hyman (as Oedipus and Tireisias), the original score and exotic instrumentation running through much of the evening, and the buff bodies of the agile chorus, the piece feels very traditional and is oddly unaffecting.

Again, the translation and the use of the chorus tell a lot. Nicholas Rudall gets program credit and a bio entry for his translation but, other than that, the plays are treated almost as facts of nature, as though the way in which they are mediated for present-day, non-Greek speakers makes no difference. Rudall maintains a straightforward, clear tone that makes its points but rarely makes waves. Oedipus is "cursed in an incestuous marriage." Haimon tells the recalcitrant Creon, "The gods have given me the power to think. It is the best thing we have." Antigone warns us: "Remember my suffering and who inflicted it, because I would not break the law of God." Creon reluctantly admits, "To give is hard." The diction is not exactly flat-footed and is in no way inaccurate, but it preserves a comfortable way of thinking about "timelessness" rather than provoking much in the way of timeliness.

Timeliness is what Kahn claimed, in an interview published in the program, to be on his mind in working out what to do with the chorus. For the age of MTV, to make this convention work, his answer was to "mix a variety of styles and create a roving ten-person chorus." Rove they do, moving expertly; but they are less integrated into the agon of the plays than spliced into the spaces between scenes involving the principal characters. And a mixture of styles, far from conveying universalism, suggests vagueness and boutique multiculturalism. Another program note--The Shakespeare Theatre is big on textual apparatus--announces that "the legend can unfold in any country, from Upper Egypt to Aztec Mexico. It can be adapted into any culture in any period of time without losing its essential power and relevance." Maybe, but Kahn's approach falls between two stools. His "Africa of the imagination" denies the specificity of the culture in which the plays were written, the specificity of any actual African tradition (they're not all the same), and the specificity of our own moment, except to the extent that we find universalism a comforting idea.

The aspect of these plays that does travel well is the leitmotif of responsibility. How do you serve your people? Your father? Your king? Your higher power? Oedipus wants to save his country from a plague; in his quest to find the murderer whose punishment will bring an end to the state's suffering, he discovers that he is the criminal. He dies in exile at Colonus, but not before protecting the state that harbored him and refusing to side with one of his sons in a war waged against the other. After his death and that of the two sons, his daughter Antigone stands up to a repressive king who would have her mourn one brother and abandon the other without burial rites. Her complicated decision to oppose this edict means not only trouble with the king but also entails violation of the filial obligation to marry.

Kahn's cast is nothing if not beautifully spoken. Avery Brooks is of the James Earl Jones school of resonant speech, as is Earle Hyman. Petronia Paley as both Jocasta and Eurydice (Creon's wife) is a model of lucidity. So are Michael Genet (Creon), Johnny Lee Davenport (Theseus), Lance Williams (Polyneices), Cynthia Martells (Antigone), Tracie Thoms (Ismene) and Jovan Rameu (Haimon). Yet, much of the time, the speech remains distanced and unaffecting. Brooks, for example, rarely looks anyone in the eye as he spins, wags his finger, poses with hands on hips, goes into palsies, extends his arms, and otherwise gesticulates. The performance is scored and choreographed, but it doesn't seem to be felt or targeted. After the blinding of Oedipus, we hardly notice a change in vocal energy, nor is there much difference in the way he faces (or doesn't) other people.

There are exceptions, and they are very gripping. Polyneices' plea to his exiled father for support is a straightforward trajectory from uncertainty through gathering courage to heartfelt kneeling at the parent's feet; the son travels the full width of the stage to reach the stonily silent father on whose decision the future hangs. Lance Williams nearly persuades us that he'll turn the king around and, as he drops to his knees, we are wholly unprepared for Oedipus--who was immobile throughout the speech--to grab the boy's throat and choke him for what seems a very long time. The sequence is shocking, clean, and dramatic. Likewise Jovan Rameu's rendering of Haimon's lecture to his father is so smart, so warm, and so morally astute, that Michael Genet's Creon looks, by comparison, even more hardhearted than his own performance indicates. Antigone's final plea--delivered by Cynthia Martells directly to the audience, asking us to stand in for the chorus and hence her larger world--is pointed and challenging.

Still, such fine moments are not enough to compensate for an otherwise respectful but bloodless evening. It's hard for those of us who saw it to forget last year's production of Oedipus by the National Theatre of Greece. There, the chorus, representing Oedipus' beloved city and his interlocutor, slowly turned away from him and seemed to mummify over the course of the play. The shepherd and messenger were rough-hewn country dwellers, offering a real contrast to the social cachet that Oedipus accuses Jocasta of wanting to protect. (In Kahn's production, these characters sound like the Yale and Juilliard graduates that their players are.) Oedipus himself went from vigorous life force to harrowed victim. Brooks, whose voice and body never seem to register failings, emerges from the blinding with daubs of stage blood on his cheekbones and his eye sockets inexplicably intact. The pain of his final moments at Thebes was also blunted by the presence of two children playing Ismene and Antigone. Apparently, they had been directed to sob--which, on the night I attended, one did phonily while the other coughed.

A final note about cultural specificity: Directors Smith and Kahn and a group of actors, scholars, and journalists planned a symposium entitled "Classic Plays, Modern Lives" for Monday, September 17, at 7:30pm, which coincided with the start of Rosh Hashanah. It's hard to think about religion in antiquity when doing so is obviously peripheral in many modern lives. Which brings us back to the real world--where, like it or not, religion is still grounds for war and self-slaughter, just as it was for classic Greek characters.


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