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Orestes

By New York City
James Saidy in Orestes(Photo © Benjamin Heller)
James Saidy in Orestes
(Photo © Benjamin Heller)
Although there's nothing new about a playwright using the works of recent or ancient predecessors as source material with which liberties can be taken -- Shakespeare was certainly one of the great purloiners -- it could be that our era is the first in which classical plays are considered no more than raw material to be treated every and any which way. The underlying motivation for what is sometimes called "deconstruction" may be honorable, based on a dramatist's notion that, were his precursor writing today, this is how he might have written his play. Or the impetus may emanate from a darker pocket of the contemporary psyche: a dramatist working now, when the potential for genuine tragedy seems limited, may opt to rewrite a seminal or at least influential work and thereby cut it down to 21st-century size.

Charles Mee's Orestes, which EB&C/Light Box has brought back for another run after its 2001 HERE bow, might well be intended as an example of the former but comes close to looking like the latter. Mee draws on both contemporary manners and technology in his reformulation of Euripides's 408 B.C. drama, which picks up where Aeschylus's Oresteia left off and covers the House of Atreus saga during the months after Orestes slaughtered his and Electra's mother Clytemnestra as revenge for her murder of their father, Agamemnon.

This approach would be roughly equivalent to a present-day playwright applying new dramaturgical ideas in imagining what happened to Biff and Happy Loman after they buried their father, Willie. When Euripides was writing, as Mee himself might point out, he was already updating theatrical conventions -- maximizing conflicts between the three central figures of the tragedy while minimizing the participation of the chorus. To some extent, he also softened the tragedy: While his narrative details the hounding and eventual trial of Orestes, Electra and their cousin Pylades, the appearance of Apollo as deus ex machina to set things right was a relatively new element. (Remember that Euripides spares Medea in a similar manner.)

Perhaps, then, Mee's deployment of the chorus in his post-modern Orestes is no more than today's equivalent of the changes Euripides introduced. And what exactly does Mee do with the chorus? For one thing, they're only a chorus of three and they're played by the actors representing Orestes (James Saidy), Electra (Margot Ebling), and Pylades (Josh Conklin). For another thing, when Mee hears the word "chorus," what he imagines are backup singers. That's right: There are times during this Orestes when energetic thespians Saidy, Ebling, and Conklin grab mikes and go through intricate choreographed movements that the Temptations would have been proud to execute. (The production is directed by Ellen Beckerman with an emphasis on comedy.)

This may sounds cute, and it is -- but it doesn't sound or look especially fresh. Chorus-as-backup-singers is only one of the many conceits Mee goes for in his 90-minute deconstruction and jocular reconstruction; he also calls for music to back up some of the show's sequences (or was this Beckerman's idea?) During a segment about politically incorrect words -- derived, it seems, from a speech in Euripides where Clytemnestra is denigrated -- Irving Berlin's "Say It Isn't So" is played. Later, the wired chorus dances to the music of The Jackson 5, and at another moment they're asked to do a time step. When Menelaus (Conklin again) arrives -- he is Agamemnon's brother, of course, and husband of the abducted Helen -- he speaks in only one of many different voices Beckerman asks her actors to give out with. And Apollo's voice-over is delivered by someone doing a damned good George W. Bush.

James Saidy and Shawn Fagan in Orestes(Photo © Benjamin Heller)
James Saidy and Shawn Fagan in Orestes
(Photo © Benjamin Heller)
In tossing Euripides up in the air and seeing how he lands, Mee has admitted that he's drawn inspiration and dialogue from William Burroughs, Bret Easton Ellis, Apollinaire (for Apollo's lines?), Elaine Scarry, John Wayne Gacy, Soap Opera Digest, Vogue, and other sources. I'm going to guess it was Vogue from which he stole the speech wherein Helen announces, "The toner I use is alcohol-free, and I moisturize all the time and use face cream. I don't dry my skin with products designed to clear up blemishes." But I have to admit that I can't identify the sources of any of the other quotes.

Mee's aim in culling from so many current sources as supplements to Aeschylus and Euripides may have been to explore the myth-making potential of our age. He could be suggesting that, just as classics are timeless and thus adaptable to any period, every period flushes out its own myths. Or he could simply be out to have a good time on Euripides's dime. Whatever his plan, this Orestes is freighted with a strong sense of deja vu. The antics that Mee has dreamed up, many of them undoubtedly abetted by Beckerman, have the look of deconstructions past. And while a fair percentage of audience members appeared to be having their ribs tickled by Mee's whimsies during the performance I attended, I wasn't among their number.

This is meant to hold nothing against actors Saidy, Ebling, and Conklin, who acquit themselves ably. Saidy, a handsome man with a pronounced cleft chin, surely understands the mixed emotions of a matricidal protagonist -- not your everyday character spectrum! -- and displays as many of them as required. Ebling and Conklin are flexible actors. All three are limber in the physically demanding sections. The set, surrounded by what looks like a tall, plastic shower curtain, is by Ken Goldstein; the unprepossessing costumes by Amela Baksic; and the lighting by Michael O'Connor. The production's busy sound design is very well handled by Bray Poor.

The purpose of Greek tragedy was to instill awe in the viewers -- to demonstrate the consequences of acts committed against the natural order and by doing so, discourage the audience from such acts. The objective was catharsis, the Greek word for purification. Mee doesn't seem to have the same goals in mind: His Orestes, Electra, and Pylades are tested and tried but never presented as real-life (or real larger-than-life) characters capable of moving spectators much beyond giggles. Prolific as he is, the playwright has more than once over the past few years seemed to be focusing on "Mee, Mee, Mee." With Orestes, he does that in more ways than one.


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