nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 27, 2012
Last year, Phoenix Theatre Ensemble gave us a lovely, non-traditional take on Iphigenia at Aulis, using a 1978 translation by the American poets W.S. Merwin and George E. Dimock, Jr. This year, they continue the story of The House of Atreus with English poet Glyn Maxwell's Agamemnon Home, a world premiere commissioned by the company based on the first play of Aeschylus's Oresteia. Once again, they've made a timeless thousands-year-old tale contemporary and relevant, with Maxwell's powerful anti-war message particularly resonant.
The story of the play—beautifully contextualized, as always, in the fascinating background material provided in the program by the Phoenix folks—starts with the arrival in Greece of King Agamemnon following the Trojan War. The war itself took much longer than expected (ten years) and another year has passed during which Agamemnon and his Greek troops met much peril at sea (Odysseus, as Homer tells us, would be gone nine more years). Filthy and in rags, Agamemnon has washed up on a cliff outside Mycenae, with his one "spoil of war," his concubine Cassandra, daughter of the vanquished Trojan king and queen.
The pair are at first ignored by the somewhat incompetent (though over-eager) Watchman who has been assigned by Queen Clytemnestra to await the bonfires that will signal the return of the victorious Greeks. But he does, with the help of Cassandra, see the tell-tale fire off in the distance and he hurries away, full of self-importance, to tell the queen the news. During his absence, his three daughters, who serve as the play's Chorus, encounter a shipwrecked sailor (the Survivor) who is the first Greek to return home from the war. Then Clytemnestra arrives with Agamemnon's cousin Aegisthus (who, it is rumored, is her current paramour), and the identity of the bedraggled king is revealed.
Maxwell's version of the play offers two interesting twists on what we're used to. First, there's a consideration of the war: the Survivor tells two versions of what he witnessed in Troy, one for his queen and one, more honest, for the Watchman's daughters. And Clytemnestra herself wonders what kind of victory has been won if her sister-in-law Helen still survives—Iphigenia, the eldest child of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, was sacrificed for the cause, literally; what did her daughter die for if justice has not been fully served?
Clytemnestra's vengeance has been the engine of the renditions of Agamemnon I've seen previously, but here Maxwell takes a more complicated route. Clytemnestra's feelings for her husband are complex and conflicting; as for Agamemnon, his guilt over the death of Iphigenia is tangled in his relationship with Cassandra, who is young enough to be his daughter (and is played by Kelli Holsopple, who portrayed Iphigenia for the Phoenix last year).
Amy Wagner directs on a simple set by Maruti Evans; music and sound by Ellen Mandel are invaluable in conveying both information and mood here. As in Iphigenia, the centerpiece performance is Elise Stone as Clytemnestra, filled with emotional shading and loaded with intelligence. Josh Tyson as the Survivor is also terrific, and it's great to see Craig Smith as the Watchman. Joseph J. Menino again portrays Agamemnon, with Brian A. Costello as Aegisthus and Amy Fitts, Zoe Watkins, and Bethany Pooler as the chorus. It all adds up to a provocative and intriguing look at classic material, well worth the time of the company and its audience.