nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 9, 2012
The first part of Obskene takes place 2,500 years ago, in a kitchen in ancient Greece. A woman stands silently butchering a slab of meat for, we suppose, tonight's dinner. A man enters breathlessly, speaking more to us than to her; but she's listening, alright. He's a Messenger, and he brings word about Medea, who has just used her virulent magic to destroy her husband Jason's new wife and father-in-law. It's vivid, frightful news, the kind you can't bear to listen to but can't turn away from either.
He goes off, leaving the woman to ponder what she's heard before she returns to her work. And then he's back, from another direction, this time with a report about the Bacchae and a revelry that turns cataclysmic when Agave leads a band of women in the murder of her own son.
And on it goes: dispatches about Clytemnestra's murder of Agamemnon, the murder of Hippolytus, Thyestes feeding Atreus his own sons. The cumulative impact is measured in the still, expressive face of Ellen Maddow, who portrays that woman in the kitchen. What I read there was: "Haven't we had enough?" coupled with "Why doesn't someone do something about this?"
Part II moves forward to a few years from today (the program says "circa 2014 A.D."). Now a manic band of wired newscasters circle one another with a more contemporary brand of Bad News. One reports on a killer heat wave (it's so hot that you can grill a steak on the sidewalk). Another brings us updates on a strange inter-species coupling between a woman and a python that looks to be taking a tragic turn. Still another offers updates on a hostage situation involving George W. Bush and a rabbi.
Tina Shepard, who conceived and directed this new piece from Talking Band, makes us look at how humans cope with the horrific, then and now. Does the cacophony of too much information—the universe we occupy today—deaden the impact of catastrophe? Has the human race learned anything over the millennia about caring for ourselves or each other?
Obskene—whose name comes from the terrible events that are always described by Messengers in Greek tragedy (as opposed to ever being depicted on stage)—makes for an interesting theatrical exploration. I was much more engaged and compelled by the first section, at least partly because Maddow and Paul Zimet—who plays all those Messengers—deliver new versions of classic speeches by Euripides, Aeschylus, and Seneca with insight and brilliance. (Sidney Goldfarb and Lizzie Olesker are responsible for the apt translations). But I think I also was responding to the thing that makes these classic plays mythic—universal themes told through stories of larger-than-life yet relatable characters. I missed this quality in most of the new "Messenger Speeches" that Shepard commissioned for Part II of Obskene, which are written by Marcus Gardley, David Greenspan, John Jesurun, Maddow, Deb Margolin, Lizzie Olesker, and Zimet.
But—especially on the heels of Hurricane Sandy—Obskene certainly packs a hefty punch, reminding us that after thousands of years, the shared vicarious experience of human suffering remains a sure way to achieve catharsis.