nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
November 13, 2009
Extensive program notes from Alexander Harrington, artistic director of The Eleventh Hour Theatre Company, explicate the argument for their current adaptation of Aeschylus's Agamemnon, for which Harrington serves as director and translator. Embracing Aristotle's insistence that tragic dialogue play in iambic trimester—plus additional academic theories as to the proper means of metering choric speech—Harrington has crafted a production intended to be severely faithful to Aeschylus's original linguistic intent. Openly acknowledged as "an experiment in what adhering to the meters will yield," this adaptation suffers from a largely unintelligible presentation.
The plot of Agamemnon picks up on the heels of Aeschylus's Iphigeneia at Aulis. Having sacrificed his daughter to the goddess Artemis in order to curry the favor of strong seaward winds, Agamemnon, King of Argos, is soon to return from the Trojan Wars. His wife, Klutaimestra, distraught at the loss of her daughter, awaits the king with thoughts of vengeance. Upon his arrival—toting the daughter of the King of Troy as a concubine—confrontation ensues, resulting in the letting of much blood and a destabilization of the royal house.
The vast majority of Agamemnon's dialogue is supplied by the Chorus of Argive Elders—twelve men and women identically costumed in brown robes and white beards, bearing staffs that serve as walking sticks and occasionally approximate props. Unfortunately, the bulk of their dialogue is virtually incomprehensible. Perhaps this is to be attributed to the uniquely strict nature of Harrington's translation, but a number of other factors hinder intelligibility. None of the performers appears to be assisted by microphone or other means of amplification. Additionally, this production has been staged in "profile"—known by some as "tennis court" or "mirror" formation—with the audience sitting at opposing sides of the space, the action taking place in the stretch between them. In this formation, the actors always have their backs to at least half of the audience, making it difficult to follow the complex text and often impossible to rely on the aid of watching the performer's mouths. (To this end, sightlines and visibility are also major problems for this production.)
Harrington has almost all of the Chorus' dialogue to music, which has been composed by Michael Sirotta and is performed live by Sirotta and two other musicians. Given the limitations imposed by Harrington's purist vision, the music presents additional problems. Much of the music is atonal and without resolution. Occasionally it sounds like Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, though more often it sounds like Andrew Lloyd Webber's interminable "The Naming of Cats." Sometimes the music is presented as a sports chant, with the Chorus striking the stage with their staffs in rhythmic unison, and, with the long-awaited entrance of Agamemnon in Act Two, this aesthetic is at its most effective; yet the result often conjures echoes of Brad Fiedel's percussive score for The Terminator. The Chorus seems to be reaching for notes just out of grasp and they are too often out of the Greeks' preferred synchronicity; there are a few stellar voices amongst the solos, to be sure, but clearness is often sacrificed for vibrato and verve.
All of this is rather disheartening to relate, as Harrington and The Eleventh Hour Theatre Company have a reputation for staging inventive, ambitious productions that allow audiences to rediscover classic texts. There are brief glimmers of the potential this production yields. Costumes by Rebecca J. Bernstein reflect forethought and a generous budget, and all of the actors wear ingenious face paint designed to reflect the classic masks worn by tragedians of the era. As Agamemnon, Robert Ierardi is powerful and articulate; with his appearance it briefly seems as though this staging may find its stride.
Unfortunately, Ierardi does not have an equal match in Valois Mickens as Klutaimestra, whose seemingly anemic attempt at a demonstrative playing style and baroque, curlicue diphthongs and triphthongs seem belonging to another show. Mickens's Klutaimestra was further diminished by constant referencing of a promptbook, clearly slathered in yellow highlighter, and held at arm's length. (One also wishes that Mickens had decided earlier to just wear her spectacles and read her lines, rather than frequently taking them on and off—folding them, unfolding them—impeding the flow of the action.) Though the evening began with Harrington's announcement that, "This is a huge production put together in a very brief period of time," it is seldom a wise idea to lower an audience's expectations only after they have paid full price for admission and taken their seats.
A sign posted outside of the playing space states that Agamemnon runs 165 minutes, yet the performance I attended ran over three hours; the first song sung by the Chorus lasts almost 40 minutes, which is about the first time this adaptation leaves behind exposition and allows anything to actually happen. It is difficult to sustain dramatic tension over such a long period of time, and the air goes out of this production long before the final notes. "I have no respect for hubris in a time of misery!" cries out a lone voice late in Agamemnon, and at the performance I attended this unfortunate line of dialogue was met with murmurs of ironic commiseration.