- The Oresteia
- Written by Aeschylus; Translated by Robert Fagles
- Adapted and Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman
- Produced by Constellation Theatre Company
- Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
They did it again. Constellation Theater, just finishing its first season yet already establishing a track record of stunning productions, has added a spectacular rendering of Greek tragedy to its repertory. With a cast of almost thirty actors, a percussionist on stage, moodily placed fog and mist, and a huge coliseum set with columns that extend to the expansive rafters of the Clark Street Playhouse (lighting and set design by A.J. Guban), The Oresteia transports the audience to an ancient time to witness the essential core of theater. These folks are unstoppable.
The primordial tone comes across from the onset with the percussive sounds of the drumbeat and ancient tones thanks to Tom Teasley’s original world music. Then the images of murder and mayhem appear as shadows behind the screen – all this before a word is spoken or a character sets foot on the main stage. Images of death and destruction are pervasive and the scent of fresh blood is ever present. Whether from very real looking and sounding swordplay, knives thrust into and wrenched out of writhing bodies, throat slitting of sacrificed virgins, or entrails being pulled from the bodies of children behind the screen, the body count depicts the treacherous times, the certainty of death, and the need to make sense of it all. And, ah, there’s the rub, the all too human need to know- why? Why is this happening and where is retribution? And thus, the role of the gods, and even a Fury or two, to help eke out some kind of sense or reason in all the madness.
The absolute wonder of this production is the role of Clytaemnestra, wife of the mighty warrior, Agamemnon who has just returned from battle. She fawns over him obsequiously but with a shifty look in her eye. She appears to accept his cute young conquest from Troy and lures them both to the banquet table to feast, smiling with the frozen expression of a desperate housewife – treachery obviously awaits behind those closed doors. Nanna Ingvarsson portrays Clytaemnestra, with a calculating, shrewd veneer. She strides across the large set with the sure steps of a huntress, stands with the backbone strength of men twice her size, plots her course and delivers, no matter how long it takes. She sets out to get whatever she has her sights on, gods be damned. While others cower in fear and trepidation, she doesn’t wait for an entity or fate to make things right and Ingvarsson portrays her “bring it on” approach with just the right seething intensity. She’s met her match with Brian Hemmingsen. Fresh off his marvelous and hard-edged performance in the Forum’s Judas Iscariot, Hemmingsen. plays Agamemnon, a mountain of a man, a ruthless warrior with a booming voice that shakes the rafters and a stance and bearing that’s not to be messed with. They are quite a pair.
The other wonder of this piece is the use of large casts of actors in the ensemble, something we don’t usually have the luxury of seeing with tight budgets and space. The actors function in packs – whether as roving pillaging warriors, the ladies who wait for them, ancient bird-like creatures emerging from the misty depths of the earth- only the Playhouse could pull that off-or a beautifully draped dancing chorus. Director Stockman goes for the gusto in combining theatrical expression, movement and dance throughout the production, and choreographer Ashley Ivey incorporates choral movement seamlessly into the action. For example, Cassandra (Jenny Cooks) is caught in a merciless tug of war between the will of the gods and man, or in this case, a commanding woman, with undulating torso, arched back and lithe movements of a trapped feline, heading towards certain death.
Director Stockman has a unique eye and an ability to shape and redefine matter in telling the story. Reminiscent of how Synetic Theater works with fabric and shapes on stage, or of free-fall director Mary Zimmerman, whose Argonautika sailed at the Landsburgh earlier this year, Stockman and her incredible designers make magic happen with, for example, a bolt of material perched in the ceiling where it transforms from festive translucent canopy to representation of water for a blustery sea-faring journey.
The entire second act is the representation of judgment and retribution. Meant to represent the first murder trial, actors take their places on large stools perched along all three sides of the stage, with a sort of ring side seats effect, incorporating the audience into the action. The gods will have their say. Eager to do their bidding, the snarling irrepressible Furies, draped in gorgeous green spandex and ostrich feathers, will see to that. Costume designer Yvette M Ryan hasn’t met a character she couldn’t drape to the max in alluring couture, blending modern style and antiquity – who else could get away with leather pants for the warriors with just the right touch overlay of fabric and an Armani-cut suit fit for the gods, literally.
The Oresteia is adapted from the only surviving Greek trilogy touching on the lives and circumstances of Clytaemnestra, Agamemnon, Orestes and Electra, and is described as “the ultimate story of war, love, vengeance and mercy.” Tackling this ancient text must have been quite a journey for all involved. The background notes state “this is the first time all three plays have been presented in a single … performance by a professional theater in Washington, D.C.” In all, The Oresteia is a rarified blend of the earliest of ancient arts-percussive sound of the heartbeat, pathos of human existence, movement, and Greek chorus expression. Enough reasons to check it out at the Clark Street Playhouse.
- Running Time: 2:45 with one intermission
- When: Thru June 1, Thursday – Saturday at 8, and Sunday at 3pm.
- Where: Clark Street Playhouse, 601 South Clark Street, Arlington, VA
- Tickets: $21
Call: 800-494-8497 or consult the website.