Top Pick! — Electra (Holly Twyford) stands before you, quivering. She wants to explain her brother Orestes (Jay Sullivan), lying motionless as a bag of rags behind her, but she is almost too filled with loathing and regret and rage to do so. She is like a teenager standing before a cop, trying to explain what happened at a party that got tragically out of hand. Her party has gotten tragically out of hand. Her brother has killed her mother, who had killed their father. And before that: the whole history of monstrous depredations – revenge killings, baby eatings – which mark and characterize the doomed house of Atreus, stretching back to her great-great grandfather, Tantalus himself, half man and half god (“tricky percentage, half,” she mutters) who, because of an unfortunate remark at a dinner party for the gods (she won’t tell what it was), now orbits the planet under the shadow of a huge rock, which always threatens to crush him but never does.
To watch Twyford twitch, a micron away from an abyss of despair and madness, is to be reminded – briefly, because you’ll want to get back to the story – of why she received three Helen Hayes nominations this year. Here is her Electra, a woman with some of the god-juice, the Olympian DNA, in her, reacting to this excruciating turn of events just like a human would – just like you or I would, had this happened to us. She utters the devastation with which the play opens as if recounting a bad dream in the hope of waking from it. You will hear it no matter where you sit in Folger’s intimate theater. You will hear it because Euripides and Anne Washburn have conspired to tell an unforgettable story, which Twyford and the rest of the cast deliver with sledgehammer power.
A word about the story: although Washburn thoroughly reworks the text to bring out its wit and to make the references clearer to a modern audience, she remains faithful to the familiar bones of the story. Menelaus (Chris Genebach) sought to bring his wife, Helen (Genebach), back from Troy, and so enlisted his dear friend and brother-in-law Agamemnon, King of Argos, to lead a fighting force there. For ten long years Agamemnon spent the blood and treasure of his land, sacrificing his own daughter to the needs of war and blighting the lives of the citizens of Argos. Finally, Helen returns home safe and Menelaus rich, but for Agamemnon, whose murderous wife Clytemnestra has taken a lover, there is only a sword. Orestes, enraged by his mother’s bestial act and urged on, he claims, by Apollo (a recorded Lynn Redgrave), revenged his father. Now the people of Argos are calling for his death, and that of his sister.
Orestes tries to call on the protection of Menelaus, without success. So he goes with his best friend Pylades (Genebach) to confront the Argosian mob. Swayed by some smooth talker obviously in the employ of Clytemnestra’s dad Tyndareus (Twyford), the mob chooses death for Orestes and Electra. The condemned siblings, full of terror and mad vengeance, hatch a terrible murder-and-kidnap plot with Pylades. But at the moment of climactic bloodshed, Apollo himself intervenes, coolly claiming responsibility for Clytemnestra’s murder and clinically explaining, without regard for human feelings, the motivations behind all of the great tragedies of the day.
Even the best of the ancient Greek plays are sometimes heavy slogging for modern audiences. In Orestes, for example, it is impossible not to notice that virtually all of the action takes place either before the play starts or offstage, and that what we see is principally the characters telling the story. But what characters! And what a story! It is the kind of story we begged our parents to tell us before we went to bed, and which thereafter kept us up all night.
Washburn, channeling Euripides, and director Aaron Posner collaborate on some of the best storytelling in Washington, aided by stunning performances from Twyford as an Electra made sick with understanding; Sullivan as an Orestes who seems at first an appealing Apollonian boy-toy but who comes to wear the blood of others as comfortably as an old tunic, and Genebach, who inhabits four characters (he also plays a craven Trojan slave, who acts exactly as you or I would in his situation) so completely different that you will need to consult your program to understand that one actor plays all four characters, and you will still be surprised.
They are aided by a fabulous Greek chorus (Lauren Culpepper, Rebecca Hart, Marissa Molnar, Margo Seibert, and Rachel Zampelli), singing James Sugg’s astonishing score. The question of how to use the Greek chorus in a modern staging is always a matter of some debate, but Sugg and Posner evince no uncertainty: the chorus is like the musical portion of the high mass, expressing emotions too profound to leave to plain unmusical language. While it seems unfair to single anyone out in a chorus this good, Hart sings as though she has the god DNA herself.
Finally, the unobtrusive technical support – Daniel Conway’s towering set, Jessica Ford’s costume design and Tyler Micoleau’s lighting design – contributes significantly to the production’s organic wholeness.
The challenge facing Washburn and Posner was to make the murderous Greeks, who blamed their self-made troubles on their gods, comprehensible to modern Americans. They have succeeded. The foibles of these troubled people, our fathers and mothers a hundred generations ago, are our foibles. And what was Tantalus’ crime, the one Electra didn’t describe, the one that launched all these miseries? There are many stories, but no one seems to know for sure. It is much the same with us.
Orestes, A Tragic Romp
A DCTS TOP PICK!
Adapted by Anne Washburn
Directed by Aaron Posner
Produced by Folger Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Orestes, A Tragic Romp runs thru March 7, 2010.
Click here for details, directions and tickets.
ORESTES, A TRAGIC ROMP