Stage Review: The Oresteia Project is intellectual and deeply provoking

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Long in the conceptualizing by director Jed Allen Harris and in the making by practically the whole CMU School of Drama, what it calls The Oresteia Project is imaginative theater, staged with breathtaking brio.

Joshua Franzos
Kirsten Bracken, Thea Brooks and Kara Lindsey make up the Chorus of "Choephorae," part of Carnegie Mellon's The Oresteia Project.
Click photo for larger image.

The Oresteia Project

Where: Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, Philip Chosky Theater, Purnell Center, Oakland.
When: Through April 28; Mon.-Fri. 7:30 p.m. Sat. 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. (Part 1: April 20, 21 mat., 24, 26, 28 mat.; Part 2: other dates).
Tickets: $22-$17.50. 412-268-2407.

In its dialogue with the text of Aeschyus' famous trilogy of 458 B.C., one of the essential cornerstones of Western art, it plumbs primal issues of mankind's relationships with the gods and its own passions. It is one of the theatrical events of recent years.

And although I'd say it speaks much more to the intellect than the heart, I can't recall when a recent play has moved me more, because it ends with an intensely disturbing thunderclap of cynicism. I almost cried out at its purposeful re-writing of Aeschylus' conclusion, an intervention as complete as if Hamlet turned out to be Fortinbras or Lear, a woman in disguise.

In that protest I finally found my own emotional connection to nearly four hours of grand and clever theatrical ritual, presented in two separate performances.

"Agamemnon," in which the victorious Greek general returns from the Trojan War to be murdered by his wife and cousin, Clytemnestra and Aesgisthus, in return for past murders, is presented alone in the semi-circular lobby of the Chosky Theater. The second performance combines the shorter "Choephorae," in which Orestes returns to avenge his father's death, staged in the theater itself, and "Eumenidies," in which gods and mankind struggle to find a way out of the spiral of blood, staged backstage.

Its inventions seem an act of continual intellectual interrogation. But there is emotion in its belief in the power of theater to plumb mysteries that most religious observance covers over with familiar formulas. That belief is expressed in the trilogy's use of different theatrical styles to express Aeschylus' version of mankind's journey toward the kind of compromise between passion and law that civilization requires.

It's not specifically important that the audience know these styles are based on such famous 20th-century experimental theater practices as that of the Living Theater, Robert Wilson and the Wooster Group. It's enough that we feel the strong and vivid movement from primal ritual through elegant meditation to ironic debunking.

Along the way there is a dazzling array of other influences, including Grotowskian ritual and styles from Japan -- just about everything except classical Greek. So what if some of this feels like an exercise in style for style's sake?

The chief invention in "Agamemnon," directed primarily by Matt Gray, is the addition of a Daemon Chorus (premonitions of the Chorus of Furies we expect to meet in "Eumenidies," except there they become something very different). You might think you're at a parallel universe tour of "Cats," these feral beasties seethe, hiss and menace with such enthusiasm.

The chief design brilliance, however, is a giant tapestry made up of children's dresses, clearly reminiscent of Agamemnon's sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia. When he is taunted into progressing across it to the palace where he will die, it comes horribly, thrillingly alive with the chorus writing within.

"Chorephorae," directed by Harris, is a different world, all measured beauty as if designed and choreographed with painterly, languorous precision by Robert Wilson, and performed with Japanese solemnity and keening chants as if edging toward avant-garde opera. It is gorgeous and also teasingly enigmatic: who is that man in the white suit suspended high up in a chair which approaches the stage but never arrives? I thought successively it was Aegisthus, the dead Agamemnon or a distant Apollo, but I guess from the program it is a silent, observant Hermes.

The backstage world of "Eumenides" is palpably modern, with scaffolding, hand-held mikes and live TV. I suppose its Handler is another version of Hermes, schemer-in-chief to the Olympian deities. The trilogy is full of such puzzles. As a robust and relentless interaction with Aeschylus, it should have the effect of driving many of us back to the text, the better to savor in retrospect all its intricacy.

This journey by design from primal to now (would that I could even list the huge design and music teams involved) is paralleled by the journey of the text. It moves from Kenneth McLeish and Frederick Raphael's relatively straight translation of "Agamemnon" through Matt Gray's freer adaptation of "Choephorae" to J.A. Ball's free re-writing of "Eumenides" in a modern idiom of talk show confessional, courtroom farce, celebrity excess and stand-up irreverence.

It's this final debunking that turns Aeschylus upside down -- in the process, no doubt revealing much. The wit is delicious. But what seems initially just a post-modern gimmick, having the chorus of Furies (primal spirits of vengeance) played by just one woman and four men in drag, rather like a pop group with attitude, turns revolutionary.

In the climactic trial of Orestes, Aeschylus has the divided Athenian jury and the goddess Athena effect a compromise in which the Furies moderate their bloody demands in return for an honored place in the pantheon. But here, Athena is a celeb bimbo, not wisdom. And at crunch-time the four men abandon the cause, shedding drag to join with Apollo (a decadent, grandstanding playboy) in male gloating. It's been a put-up job all along, and the one woman is strong-armed off to the glass-enclosed Hades in which the dead Clytemnestra, Aegisthus and Kassandra have been waiting, watching the trial on demonic TV.

I understand this is all about the oppressive triumph of patriarchy, the outlines of which are perfectly clear in Aeschylus and throughout classical Greek culture. But in the process, Ball and director Harris throw out the essential baby -- justice or at least the ideal thereof, which becomes just another patriarchal scam.

At that, I protest, and I hope Aeschylus is contacting his agent to exact revenge. But even he would experience admiration for this huge, elaborate achievement and for the large cast and its admirable work in many styles.

Joshua Franzos
Liz Fenning (Kassandra)surrounded by (left to right) Abigail McFarlane, Matt Burns and Adam Siladi of the Daemon Chorus in "Agamemnon."
Click photo for larger image.Joshua Franzos
Left to right: Devin Ilaw, Antwayn Hopper Stephen Rosenberg and (below) Joseph Anthony Byrd as the Chorus of Furies, surrounding Robert Maxheimer as Orestes (in white) in "Eumenides."
Click photo for larger image.


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