nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 21, 2007
The savage story of the House of Atreus is one of the cornerstones of Western Civilization, fascinating writers and observers for thousands of years with its potent and tantalizing blend of moral gravity and bloodthirsty entertainment. Aeschylus made his Oresteia some 2500 years ago and shaped the legend into an uplifting examination of man's emergence out of the dark ages of superstition into the light of justice, law, order, and reason. David Johnston's version, in 2007, does some of the same, while acknowledging that the power of storytelling comes from its ability to tap into the dark and light sides of human nature, which reside there side by side and don't ever seem to go away. "You don't judge somebody by the worst thing they did," argues one of the characters in this Oresteia, nailing Johnston's theme of our eternal ambivalence. Because we ALWAYS do that. And because we always don't.
The three parts of the Oresteia trace the end of a family curse that goes back generations before the action begins; Johnston summarizes the back story in a couple of places, as in this exchange between young Orestes and the goddess Athena:
ATHENA: Who are you? And who are your people?
ORESTES: I am Orestes, of the house of Atreus.
ATHENA: The House of Atreus?
ATHENA: Tantalus, who chopped us his son Pelops and fed him to the gods?
ORESTES: My great-great grandfather.
ATHENA: Atreus, who killed his brother’s children and served them to their father?
ORESTES: His son was great Agamemnon, a hero of Troy, my father a hero—a soldier—and a great hero—he led many—
ATHENA: He murdered his daughter, right?
In Part I of the Oresteia, Agamemnon returns home from the Trojan War, where his wife Clytemnestra, who has been plotting revenge for the death of her beloved daughter, murders him and the concubine he acquired by conquest, the Trojan princess/prophetess Cassandra. In Part II, Orestes—egged on by his sister Electra and ordered by Apollo's oracle—murders Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Both plays end with spectacular Grand Guignol tableaux, with the avengers simultaneously madly triumphant and despairing at having done the deed.
In Part III nobody murders anybody. Instead, the Eumenides (aka the Furies) torment Orestes for having done matricide; he seeks refuge with the goddess Athena, who declares that his case is too serious to be decided by gods and must instead by settled by men. She assembles twelve Athenians to hear the trial, and convinces her ancestors the Eumenides to abide by this revolutionary method of dispensing justice. In Johnston's eyes, it's less a gift from a righteous goddess and more a revelation of something that was always there: morality, like history, is entirely subjective in the world of this play, which is why this play is so resonant and profound.
The language, as you've seen, is accessible and forthright; this is as easy-to-follow a version of this complicated myth as I've ever come across, rendered with considerable dark humor but nothing like irreverence or even irony. It's very much an Oresteia for our time.
Johnston has taken some liberties in crafting his piece, most notably the addition of a Curator in the first part who takes on two of the functions of the traditional Greek chorus, providing a good deal of exposition as well as setting forth the ethical and moral questions that underlie the entire evening. It's a splendid creation.
Stephen Speights's staging is almost miraculously brisk, never slacking and presenting the complex plot and deeply involving themes with great clarity. The set, by Robert Monaco, at first looks like what you'd expect in a traditional Greek tragedy, but is revealed to have many secret panels and sliders that transform the space in a variety of useful and interesting ways. Jonna McElrath's costumes add a few anachronisms to classic models (the watchman wears binoculars, the curator wears eyeglasses); and Evan O'Brient's lighting, Brandon Wolcott's sound, and Margaret F. Heskin's music all contribute mightily to the drama. Michelle Ross is credited with the creation of the remarkable masks worn by the three Eumenides. There's also an unusual entry in the program—"Blood Wrangler" F. Dash Vata—whose work is invaluable and expert here.
The eleven-member ensemble is outstanding. Frank Anderson (Agamemnon), Kathy Lichter (Clytemnestra), Susan Schoenberg (Electra), and Brendan Bradley (Orestes) are terrific as the would-be nuclear family at the core of the story: Lichter is particularly affecting as a woman who can be a skillful seductress one minute and a monstrous murderess the next. Gary Shrader is excellent as the Curator, giving shading to a character who might otherwise be one-note. Jonna McElrath gives us a memorable Cassandra and Nell Gwynn has a fine darkly comic turn as one of Clytemnestra's embittered servants; both later join with Heidi Jackson to play the implacable Eumenides. Robyn Weiss and Bryce Gill are entirely convincing as sibling gods Athena and Apollo. Kyle Ancowitz completes the cast in the small role of the watchman.
Stories are timeless for a good reason: it's because they always have something new to reveal whenever they're given a fresh hearing. Johnston and his talented collaborators at Blue Coyote Theater Group have definitely found resonant insight in this age-old myth that make The Oresteia pretty much essential viewing for those who care about the most fundamental questions of morality, justice, and the powerful ability of stories and drama to frame them.