nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
March 28, 2009
Woe unto the House of Atreus! Built on a foundation of greed, arrogance, deceit and treachery, the lineage of this mythical family that began with the hubris of Tantalus feeding his son Pelops to the gods and suffered through such despicable acts as the murder of a father (Aigisthos), the cuckolding of a brother (Atreus), the marriage of a son to a mother (Thyestes), the cannibalism of a man (Thyestes again) eating a pie containing his two sons, and the sacrifice of a daughter (Iphigenia; by Agamemnon) to move an army into war (Troy). Throw in the murder of 14 children (Niobe) by the gods on Olympus, the transformation of a Queen (Niobe again) into stone, and the kidnapping of a wife (Helen; wife of Menelaus) whose abduction led to a lengthy siege in a far off land (Troy again) and you have the makings of a family whose dysfunction makes Tolstoy's Oblonsky clan look like the Cleavers.
Classic Stage Company's production of An Oresteia perfectly explores the holy mess infecting this accursed family tree. It consists of three plays written by three of the major Greek playwrights and all are translated by poet Anne Carson.
The first of these, Aishkhylos's Agamemnon, which tells the story of Agamemnon's return from the Trojan War and his murder at the hands of his wife (Klytaimestra) and her lover (Aigisthos). Agamemnon focuses on the idea of Justice. Everyone wants it: Klytaimestra seeks it as compensation for the murder of her daughter at the hands of her husband; Agamemnon desires its rewards, having just returned from Troy dispensing his own version of it; Cassandra, the slave and the spoil of war Agamemnon brings with him, begs Apollo for it in the hopes of relieving her of visions which foretell a gruesome fate for both her and the residents; Aigisthos, cousin to Agamemnon, revels in it, mocking and abusing the corpse of his lover's husband. And then there's the chorus of maids and servants who represent ordinary people who, in an act of supreme irony, plead to those involved to act honorably in light of the actions perpetrated against the master of the house.
Directors Brian Kulick and Gisela Cardenas do an expert job of exposing the tragic ways in which the various uses and definitions of Justice can dilute its meeting. Everyone gains so little by achieving it—and in such grotesque fashion—that you begin to wonder if it's really such a good thing in the first place.
The second play, Sophokles's Elektra, picks up where Agamemnon leaves off. Agamemnon's house in Argos is now truly governed by Klytaimestra and Aisgisthos. The number of chorus servants has been reduced from six to three and they are cleverly portrayed as sunbathing fashionistas who wear big hats and lie on beach towels. They seem above the action, beyond it in a way that suggests they have absorbed the murder, and their laissez-faire attitude speaks of their confidence that proper justice is about to be served.
Enter Elektra, clad in black and looking somewhat goth, whose suffering gives weight and dimension to the casual atmosphere. She grieves the loss of her father and the arrogance of her mother. She rails against the curse on the house and the folly of the gods that put it there. And just when she's been assured that vengeance will be wrought—Apollo has ordered it—by her brother Orestes, news arrives announcing his death. The last pillar of hope removed, the weight of her grief and circumstances come crashing down and she descends into something resembling madness.
It is a difficult role seeing as Elektra, because of her position and gender, cannot do much more than shout against the deterioration around her, but actress Annika Boras has the chops to pull it off. Her Elektra is uncompromising and uses every tool at her disposal to portray a woman clinging to the last vestiges of her morality and humanity as her world is destroyed and reassembled around in her in a way far from her choosing.
The third and final piece, Euripides's Orestes, acts as a coda to other pieces and the tone shifts dramatically from the previous two acts. The theatrical landscape transforms from the linear to the more abstract valleys of Orestes's troubled mind as he endures—literally and figuratively—the consequences of murdering his mother: he and Elektra have been tried by the state for enacting Apollo's sanctioned revenge and sentenced to death by stoning.
The play reads more like a piece of performance art that deconstructs the contours of Orestes's psyche in relation to the societal dynamics at play: two commentators sit on the sidelines, singing songs and reporting on the action. Elektra acts as emcee and conspirator, depending on her character's needs. Orestes spends a good deal of the play in a state of shock and occupying vague spaces, provoked or haunted by characters (Menelaus makes an appearance; as does Helen, who seems remarkably unrepentant as the cause of the Trojan War). The piece is staged to illustrate the dynamics of a family and a community as they try to make sense of and resolve the curse that has plagued them for so many years.
Is there resolution? Not really, which is what makes An Oresteia such a remarkable piece. The deus ex machina appears (an absurdly attired Apollo on a very silly looking swing) to lift the curse from the family. In the end, there is release and there is laughter but there is also a keen understanding of the havoc wrought and the lives destroyed. There is the sense that it will take a few generations before things return to normal. But if the previous two acts are any indication, the tragedy of the pieces is that the family caught in the curse got there by the simple, human qualities no human is immune to: pride, arrogance, greed, love, lust, passion...qualities which reside in everyone and can easily lead to another cycle of death and grief.Will they be able to avoid it? Can any of us? The history of humanity says otherwise but please pardon me while I cross my fingers.