One of this extraordinary presentations of this year's festival is an Israeli co-production titled Mythos, a loose adaptation of Aeschylus' Oresteia performed by Itim Theater Ensemble and Cameri Theater. The harrowing tale of murder and revenge is seen by many as a template for the revenge tragedies that dominated Elizabethan theater, and it has never outlived its relevance. Its currency, both globally and in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is beyond question.
Happily, this production -- adapted and directed by Rina Yerushalmi -- does not indulge in the kind of cheap updating that mars so many adaptations of Greek plays. Here, no one wears military fatigues (though they're used as props) and no connection is drawn between the warring parties and any specific faction today. Arab and Jewish Israelis are both included in a presentation that has virtually none of the glitz we've become accustomed to in shows of this type.
As might be expected from a company operating in a war-torn region, Yerushalmi's production does not in any way glamorize bloodshed; rather, it turns a cold, clear eye on the machinations of revenge. Yerushalmi and company have little interest in flashy performances, meaningless eye candy, or conceptual leaps that do not serve the gut-level impact of the material. This isn't to say that the show is without style, for it possesses a distinct aesthetic; but Mythos subsumes style to substance in a way that is rare today.
To accomplish its goals, this stunningly well directed work offers riveting, pain-steeped performances, at the center of which stands Karin Tepper's Electra. The actress's voice wrings guttural power from the Hebrew of the adaptation (English-translation headsets are provided) and her physical embodiment of the character is complete. Yet we do not feel technique in Tepper's rendering, unlike many recent bravura turns in such roles in London and New York. As directed by Yerushalmi, Tepper draws us into the character's suffering and desire for vengeance by displaying these emotions not as neuroses or mad passions, but as deeply real human needs.
The Chorus also commands attention and conveys sorrow in a way that few choruses in recent memory have done. Their movements, combining subtle, abstract choreography with davening and breast-beating, powerfully complement their spoken and sung lamentations. The effect beggars description, but this is another sign of the success of the piece; what is theatrical cannot be easily described, for its communal, ritual, and performance aspects are essential. This Chorus embodies the essence of public group mourning as Avi Belleli's original music weaves its patterns effectively throughout these scenes and the rest of the play.
The story begins with Electra learning of Clytemnestra's killing of Agammemnon, for which act she craves revenge, eventually to be aided by her brother Orestes. Later in the show, we are taken back in time to Agammemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia at Aulis, a painful scene handled well by Gal Barzilay as the king. This sacrifice, which set off so much further agony, serves as the basis of Euripides's play Iphigenia at Aulis and is used in Mythos to great effect. Aspects of Euripides's The Trojan Women are incorporated in the final act, but these are not as effective in that they deal only peripherally with the House of Atreus.
Overall, the production has many dazzling elements, but the acting is most impressive of all. The message is unmistakable: Greek drama is rarely glamorous, and it's far better to present and perform these great tragedies with gutsy emotion than to give them superficial makeovers.