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An Oresteia

Classic Stage Company's ambitious reconfiguration of this classic Greek trilogy is only partially successful. logo
Mickey Solis and Annika Boras in An Oresteia
(© Joan Marcus)
The bloody story of the House of Atreus is best known in the form of Aiskhylos' grand trilogy, The Oresteia. However, in an ambitious reconfiguration of this classic Greek tale of betrayal and revenge, subtly retitled An Oresteia, Classic Stage Company only uses the first of Aiskhylos' plays, Agamemnon. It then turns to works by two other Greek tragedians, presenting Sophokles' Elektra and Euripides' Orestes. All three plays have been translated by poet and scholar Anne Carson, and presented together, they follow a somewhat different trajectory than the more commonly staged trilogy. But while the project is both intriguing and worthwhile, CSC's execution is only partially successful.

The major problem besetting the production is immediately apparent as soon as you enter the theater and see Riccardo Hernandez's impractical set. Those seated in the two side sections must peer through a narrow gap in the side walls and are likely to be unable to properly see the action on certain segments of the stage (particularly the upper level). To make matters worse, at the performance I attended, the center doors of the main wooden set unit would not stay in their proper position, and their swinging was distracting for those of us in the center section, and made it even more impossible for those on the sides to see.

However, the set is not the only obstacle to this endeavor, which is broken into two separately ticketed events (with marathon performances on weekends). Part I covers Agamemnon and Elektra, and is directed by Brian Kulick and Gisela Cardenas. The handling of the text in both these plays is often heavy-handed, with several of the actors giving overly emotive speeches without connecting to the material. As Klytaimestra, Stephanie Roth Haberle plays everything on the surface, giving the appearance of indignation rather than letting the audience see the depths of her passion. On the plus side, Craig Baldwin brings a convincingly frantic madness to the role of Aigisthos in Agamemnon, although that part is less successfully played by Christopher McCann in Elektra. Annika Boras, who plays Elektra, is often effective, wringing out true anguish from many of her speeches, and her interaction with sister Chrysothemis (Michi Barall) brings out a layered complexity to this sibling relationship.

Mickey Solis is curiously stiff as Orestes in Elektra, but comes to vivid life in director Paul Lazar's staging of Orestes, which is the only play presented in Part II of An Oresteia. Here, Solis nicely balances his character's Fury-induced madness with a wry sense of humor that is particularly evident in his interactions with Menelaos (Steve Mellor). While Part I's modern-dress production has its quirks, Lazar also shifts the performance style to a much more experimental mode, complete with stylistic nods to artists such as Richard Foreman and The Wooster Group.

It's also in this play that Carson is the most noticeably contemporary in her use of language, referring to Helen as a "weapon of mass destruction" and having Orestes whine about his "exit strategy." Lazar also seems to have imported some of his own language, as there's a speech made by David Neumann as a Trojan Slave that includes a curious mention of a handjob in a men's bathroom which does not actually appear in the printed version of Carson's Oresteia translations, recently published by Faber and Faber. Neumann, by the way, is highly entertaining, even singing one of his speeches in the style of Leonard Cohen. (The original music by Christian Frederickson is also quite good.)

Such offbeat choices make this segment of the trilogy more effective than the previous two parts, although traditionalists might be turned off by some of the quirky dances and use of microphones which admittedly have become sort of cliché in avant-garde circles. Lazar also benefits from Euripides' different approach to his subject matter, which incorporates much more humor than Aiskhylos or Sophokles. Portions of the production are staged farcically, and this tale of morally compromised anti-heroes has a stronger resonance with contemporary sensibilities than the more celebratory conclusion of The Eumenides, which is Aiskhylos' more well known ending to the Oresteia.

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