It seems somehow written in the stars that Michael Kahn would choose the world premiere of Ellen McLaughlin’s The Oresteia as the final show of his towering tenure as Artistic Director at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Great man. Epic trilogy.
The Shakespeare Theatre commissioned Ellen McLaughlin to tackle Aeschylus’ three-part play about the cursed House of Atreus and her adaptation, which clocks in at a Spartan two and a half hours, moves as swiftly and cleanly as winged Mercury. The language is stark and rich with the poetic alchemy of ancient Greek. The way McLaughlin’s words sound in your ears and are beautifully spoken by the actors is ambrosia.
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Other senses are engaged in this towering production. Susan Hilferty crafts a rocky landscape that seems like a precursor of the godforsaken spot where Didi and Gogo bide their time in Waiting for Godot. Amid the dirt and rock looms the House of Atreus, a menacing presence that belies its neat classical architecture. Inside these walls, unspeakable things happen and unearthly cries are heard—in the Greek tragic tradition, most of the bloody doings are offstage and the audience sees only the aftermath.
Lighting Designer Jennifer Tipton completes the forbidding atmosphere with a staging mostly under the cover of darkness, with stars either sparkling hard or dying out, casting the only light on the House of Atreus, its royal occupants and servants. Hilferty also created the effective costumes—pleated silk for the highborn, rough cloth tunics and head wraps for the servants.
The Oresteia tells of this wretched family, whose bloody deeds make those seen on “Game of Thrones” seem like rank amateurs. Nobody does murder like the Greeks—except maybe the Jacobeans with severed heads swung in bags and poisoned kisses, but I digress—and people shuffle off that mortal coil in all sorts of creative ways.
The gods cursed this family, you may recall, after a vengeful sibling cooked his brother’s children—and reader, he ate them!—and that was just too inhuman for the gods to tolerate (because that’s the kind of stuff only the gods can get away with), thus perpetuating a cycle of violence and revenge.
McLaughlin has compressed the trilogy into a ruthless drama that begins with the king Agamemnon (the commanding and stoic Kelcey Watson) sacrificing his favorite daughter Iphigenia (a consummately poised Simone Warren) to the gods so the winds will blow once again, transporting him and his men across the sea to fight the Trojan War.
His wife Clytemnestra (Kelley Curran, in a performance of such etched clarity and cruelty it will blow you away) finds his decision intolerable. For ten years she waits and seethes, patient and impatient, to avenge the death of her daughter—an action she states is fated and no doubt anticipated by Agamemnon. In contrast to her dutiful husband, Clytemnestra is a godless queen, using cold hard reason in lieu of the fancies of the god. What her husband did left her the Mother of all avengers and bereft of maternal love for her surviving children. What a twisted fate.
Agamemnon arrives at long last with the spoils of war in tow—the princess Cassandra (Zoë Sophia Garcia, at once regal and unraveling), who is an oracle both gifted and cursed by Apollo. She sees the future and the truth, but no one believes her. Ah, once again, those Greeks.
Clytemnestra does what she set out to do, steeping in the blood of her husband and Cassandra. But, murder never solves anything, and her mind and soul are tormented with unrest. Years of rage have honed her to stiletto-sharpness, her speech clipped and clean and, as Curran indelibly portrays her, a woman of extremes—noble and base, maternal and cold—especially in the callous treatment of her surviving daughter Electra (Rad Pereira, electrifying as a young woman seized with grief), whom she treats like a tiresome servant.
Electra is a bird-like soul, clawing at the dirt of her father’s grave, pecking and poking at the grief she feels for her father and the rage she directs at her mother. Her long-lost brother Orestes (Josiah Bania, playing the son as someone afflicted by PTSD, his movements and speech almost seizure-like as he strides toward the fate the gods inflicted upon him) arrives home after a 10-year-absence and Electra’s unhappiness infects him like a virus.
He’s like a machine, accepting and even embracing the machinations of his dominating sister and the divine Apollo who drive him to perpetuate the cycle of violence in a matricidal act. Clytemnestra, however, doesn’t go gently, delivering an excoriating speech about the unnaturalness of “unmothering” your mother that will leave you stunned.
The Oresteia from Shakespeare Theatre Company closes June 2, 2019. Details and tickets
The third part of the play moves from personal vendetta to societal sanctions, as the collective body of servants decide the fate of Orestes and his sister with legal reasoning and clarity (although, naturally there are dissenting opinions).
McLaughlin’s adaptation distills the characters down to their essence. Without the distraction of other characters and plotlines, the main characters become pure. Clytemnestra pure hatred and revenge, Cassandra pure in the tragedy of the disbelieved, Electra the pure grief of the unloved.
This magnificent production is soaked in blood and familial discord, but ends with a glint of hope. The trial in the second act suggests it is up to us, a future where human will can triumph over the old school oppression of destiny. In the world that Aeschylus, McLaughlin and Kahn lay out, the gods are fickle and inscrutable, the ruling class is either enslaved by divine loyalty or the fate of bloodlines. People have the power to break the cycle of violence by rising up, reaching out and above all, listening to the still voice of their finer selves.
The Oresteia . Freely adapted from the trilogy by Aeschylus by Ellen McLaugthlin . Director: Michael Kahn . Featuring: Kelley Curran, Simone Warren, Kelcey Watson, Zoe Sophia Garcia, Rad Pereira, Josiah Bania, Corey Allen, Kati Brazda, Helen Carey, Jonathan Louis Dent, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Alvin Keith, Patrena Murray, Sophia Skiles. Movement Director: Jennifer Archibald. Scenic and Costume Designer: Susan Hilferty. Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton. Sound Designer: Cricket S. Myers. Composer: Kamala Sankaram. Fight Choreographer: Robb Hunter. Casting Director: Carter C. Wooddell. Dramaturg: Drew Lichtenberg. Vocal and Text Coach: Lisa Beley. Assistant Director: Craig Baldwin. Production Stage Manager: Joseph Smelser. Stage Manager: Christopher Michael Borg. Assistant Stage Manager: Rebecca Shipman. Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.