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The Oresteia

David Johnston's adaptation provides a few welcome laughs, but the humor occasionally undermines the dramatic heft of the material. logo
Brendan Bradley (center) with Nell Gwynn,
Heidi Jackson, and Jonna McElrath
in Orestia
(© Kyle Ancowitz)
The Oresteia isn't a comedy, but David Johnston's new adaptation of the Greek tragedy does provide a few laughs. While effective in moderation, however, the humor occasionally undermines the dramatic heft of the material.

Johnston keeps Aeschylus' three-part structure, with the first two sections "Agamemnon" and "The Libation Bearers" presented before the intermission, and "The Eumenides" afterwards. The basic plot is also the same: Agamemnon (Frank Anderson) comes home victorious from fighting the Trojan War, gets killed by his wife Clytemnestra (Kathy Lichter) in revenge for his having sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia (Heidi Jackson). In retribution, her daughter Electra (Sarah Schoenberg) conspires with brother Orestes (Brendan Bradley) to murder their mother. After Orestes does the deed, he's hounded by the Furies (Jonna McElrath, Nell Gwynn, and Lichter) until everything is resolved when the goddess Athena (Robyn Weiss) presides over the case.

Still, Johnston does incorporate a few touches that are all his own, most notably the character addition of the curator for the Argos Cultural and Historical Society. Performed by Gary Shrader, this figure appears towards the beginning of the play to give the audience a tour of an exhibition commemorating the House of Atreus. His official lecture, however, is interrupted by the three Furies who badger him in regards to all of the murders and acts of cannibalism perpetrated by Agamemnon's ancestors and the curse upon his house. Not only is this a terrific way to give some background exposition to the audience, it ends with the frustrated curator shouting at the Furies, "Why are you doing this? Why are you only talking about the worst things these men ever did? Nobody is just the worst thing they ever did!"

That final statement resonates throughout the rest of the play, as bloody deed after bloody deed is performed with all of the characters having good reasons for doing them, as well as good reasons for why they shouldn't. Should people be judged for their crimes without any thought to mitigating circumstances? Is a cycle of war and revenge -- an eye for an eye -- the only way to proceed? These are the hard questions that Aeschylus asks in his original version and which are brought out nicely in Johnston's adaptation.

Bradley -- who makes for a particularly hunky Orestes -- is quite good at finding both the humor in the script as well as its darker undercurrents. Schoenberg is an absolute delight as a goth-like Electra with a dry wit and a manic demeanor that borders on (and maybe crosses over into) insanity. Gwynn is terrific as both a servant to Clytemnestra that Electra befriends and as one of the Eumenides. McElrath, who also plays the prophetess Cassandra, brings a sad, tragic air to her role. Shrader's curator character is so perfectly and hilariously realized that I wished he'd make more appearances than he does.

On the other hand, Lichter is occasionally effective, but doesn't have the commanding presence needed for the role of Clytemnestra. The same is true of Weiss's Athena. Bryce Gill, who plays both Aegisthus and Apollo, overdoes the hammy qualities of his characters, particularly in "The Libation Bearers." Anderson, saddled with a heavy-handed victory speech in which he declares that "the gods love freedom," can't quite sell it, making the scene drag on too long.

Director Stephen Speights is only partially successful in balancing Johnston's dark humor with the playwright's more serious concerns. The repeated invocations of horror movie iconography -- from Clytemnestra wielding a bloody axe to one of the Eumenides rising from a grave to grasp at Orestes -- would be more effective if they weren't so campy. Obviously fake blood smeared on the exposed flesh of a few of the actors is another touch that gives the whole production a rather amateurish veneer that distracts from the actual horror of what the characters do to one another.

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