BWW Review: THE ORESTEIA at Shakespeare Theatre Company
What is justice? Who decides, who metes it out, how do we know it is truly "just"?
These are questions we ask ourselves regularly - in politics and current events, at work, in our personal lives. They're questions humanity has grappled with over the centuries, and people will continue to do so long after we're gone. So it's only fitting that the sole surviving example of the Greek tragedies is Aeschylus' The Oresteia, a trilogy of plays that center around the accursed House of Atreus and its struggles with vengeance and justice.
The Oresteia traces a particularly grueling chapter in the family's bloody history. Following the end of the decade-long Trojan War, a triumphant King Agamemnon returns home to his wife, Clytemnestra, with his wayward sister-in-law, Helen, and his captive, the prophet Cassandra, in tow. Agamemnon is given a lavish welcome by his wife, though it's all pretense; once he is in the bath, she moves forward with her plan to murder him, and his new slave, who sees not only their deaths, but also the horrific deaths of those who have come before. Clytemnestra has orchestrated this revenge killing on behalf of her eldest daughter, Iphigenia, who was sacrificed by her own father to win the gods' favor in order for the army to have the wind needed to sail to Troy all those years ago. Their remaining children, Electra and Orestes, are sitting in their rooms, unaware of the events taking place upstairs, but are of course traumatized by the aftermath. Clytemnestra sends Orestes away and treats Electra as a forgotten, anonymous servant, but, ten years later, Orestes returns and continues the bloody cycle by extracting vengeance for his father's death by dispatching of his mother with Electra's help. After the murder, the question remains what is the just response to Orestes' actions.
Shakespeare Theater Company's production of The Oresteia is decidedly more contemporary than the original, but loses none of the impact. The epic trilogy written by Aeschylus so long ago has been condensed by playwright Ellen McLaughlin into single evening of theater, but maintains the drama, tragedy, and emotion that makes the play so compelling. Her updated and wonderfully pointed language (I particularly liked the evolution of the commentary around Agamemnon as "a man who could do anything") also has the additional impact of making the play feel more immediate, but preserves the themes beautifully.
Conveying this updated language is an extraordinarily talented cast, led by Kelley Curran as Clytemnestra. Even at her worst moments, Clytemnestra is played with a sensitivity that makes her as sympathetic as she is concerning; she is both victim and villain, and Curran's mesmerizing performance certainly captures that. Equally compelling is Simone Warren as Iphigenia. Warren's beautifully haunting presence and sweet demeanor makes the bloody slash from her sacrifice all the more jarring; although the character is long dead before we meet her, it's impossible not to feel indignant on her behalf, and therefore more sympathetic to Clytemnestra's loss. Kelcey Watson's Agamemnon is discussed far more than he's on stage, but Watson's careful portrayal prevents the character from ever becoming a cutout or caricature. His tenderness in scenes with his daughter and weariness at the end of the battle prevent the man who has done horrific things from being fully evil, though his passionate faith in the gods makes his actions entirely believable. As Clytemnestra's neglected daughter, Electra, Rad Pereira embodies bitterness and despair; her character is perhaps the most tragic, and Pereira's emotional performance is the perfect balance to the sympathies drawn by Curran and Warren's characters. Although her role is short-lived, Zoë Sophia Garcia's Cassandra is a gut-punch - she has just seen her city destroyed (both in visions and reality), and has been brought to this foreign land only to see her death as well as those that have come before her in this home's bloody history. Her visions from Apollo also lay the groundwork for Orestes' own possession by the god; as heart-wrenching as Cassandra's story is, Josiah Bania's Orestes is so tormented by Apollo's visions and orders that he arrives to complete his bloody task already shaking and tortured. Bania's progression from this to a hollowed out, helpless boy over whom judgement must be passed is heartbreaking.
Supporting the main cast are the Greek Chorus, who are portrayed as the servants to the family home. They observe the horrific actions taking place in the house and field the aftermath - bad dreams, revenge killings, tyranny, and fear. They also serve to delve into the questions raised by the performance: through them, the audience is able to engage in a discussion about the roles we play as actors and bystanders, and what the meaning and purpose of justice truly is. What's notable is that although they blend and work as a supportive unit, each member has the skill and stage presence to carry a larger role; the actors' ability to shine and melt back into the group is remarkable.
I would be remiss in this review if I didn't acknowledge Susan Hilferty's fabulous costumes and stunning set. Lighting designer Jennifer Tipton also helped provide a unique and beautiful backdrop to balance the dark play.
But, most of all, praise should be heaped on Artistic Director Michael Kahn. The Oresteia, long a point of fascination for Kahn, is his final production at Shakespeare Theater Company, and is a stunning, fitting farewell and tribute to his illustrious career. Even with a strong cast and script, a long, bloody epic can be depressing or tedious in the wrong hands. Kahn deeply understands the underlying questions and humanity of the tale, and draws out an emotional, sympathetic performance that rings with a relevance to our lives today. Under his direction, The Oresteia is not just insight to our shared history, but also into the world we want to build.
Shakespeare Theater Company's production of The Oresteia runs at Sidney Harman Hall through June 2nd. The performance is approximately two and a half hours with one 15-minute intermission. Please note that the play contains heavy topics and graphic violence. Additional information about the show can be found on the Shakespeare Theater Company's website.