The summer of 2005 is turning out to be a season of brazen ambition among tiny upstart theater companies. In May Infamous Commonwealth produced the nine-play, six-hour Kentucky Cycle. This month the Velvet Willies opened Hamlet and All’s Well That Ends Well in repertory. And now the three-year-old Rogue Theater offers its take on the “Oresteia,” Aeschylus’ massive retelling of the collapse and salvation of the House of Atreus. So much for breezy summer entertainment.
But rather than mounting Aeschylus’ original “Oresteia” trilogy, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and Eumenides–the only surviving Greek tragic trilogy and one of the greatest achievements in literary history–they’ve cobbled together a “Frankensteia,” as Rogue artistic director Nate White describes it in a program note. The myth of power-hungry King Agamemnon, his vengeful wife, Clytemnestra, and their murderous offspring Electra and Orestes is parsed out in three other plays that span millennia: Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s expressionist Elektra, and Charles Mee’s postmodern Orestes 2.0. The ambitious scope of the project is unmistakable; but as Aeschylus warns in his “Oresteia,” ambition coupled with poor judgment is an invitation to disaster.
Poor judgment saturates the conceptually promising event; the plays, performed in repertory, are so stylistically and thematically disparate that they hardly inform or build off one another. And who can trust a company that justifies Iphigenia at Aulis, a sort of prequel to the original “Oresteia,” by asserting, “We couldn’t find a version of Agamemnon that we all thought was great.”
No justification is needed for staging Euripides’ masterful Iphigenia at Aulis: the playwright’s genius for complicating and problematizing the just militarism of self-righteous Greek invaders is ripe for contemporary contemplation.
The play opens as Agamemnon and his brother, Menelaus, leading a Greek army toward Troy to recapture Helen, are stalled at Aulis for lack of wind. A prophet divines that the goddess Artemis will grant wind–and victory at Troy–if Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia. He summons her with the false promise of marriage to Achilles, but his conscience gnaws at him and he attempts to send word that she should ignore the summons. The message is intercepted by Menelaus, all too eager to see his niece slaughtered and Troy sacked so he can get his unfaithful wife back.
After Iphigenia and Clytemnestra arrive and discover Agamemnon’s true plans, the play becomes a series of increasingly disturbing scenes that narrow and finally eliminate Iphigenia’s chances for survival. But the energy in director Kerstin Broockmann’s production remains almost unwaveringly flat, thanks largely to the cast’s mishandling of Euripides’ language. As is too often the case with Chicago actors, they try to turn blank verse into ordinary speech, neutralizing the poetic richness of the text. The suspended, amplified psychology of Euripides’ characters collapses into workaday distress, which the actors try to inflate with “realistic” acting despite the decidedly mythic passions of their characters. They’re stuck acting uphill, trying to shove ordinary emotions up epic cliffs, and the result is awkward, unconvincing performances. The chorus of idle, dispassionate women dressed as last season’s Gap models sends the show into a conceptual tailspin.
The production fails to evoke the titanic external forces that press this tragedy forward, from the demanding gods to the impatient mob of offstage soldiers demanding Iphigenia’s sacrifice to the noxious, glory-mongering culture of Greek militarism. Most problematically, it never questions the justness of the looming invasion of Troy or the moral fortitude of Agamemnon, whose motives are suspect in Euripides’ text. Iphigenia’s eventual acquiescence to her own senseless killing becomes a noble gesture, and the king who murders his daughter to protect the world from “barbarians” becomes a much-abused hero. It’s a singularly careless reading of the play.
Director and translator Stephen Fedo has a better handle on Hofmannsthal’s Elektra, a seminal retelling of the Greek myth originally staged in Berlin by Max Reinhardt in 1903. Klytaemnestra and her new husband, King Aegisthus (who plotted with his wife to murder Agamemnon), are holed up in a Victorian castle populated by phantomlike washerwomen and menservants, as well as Klytaemnestra’s two surviving daughters, Elektra and Chrysothemis. Rotting from guilt over her vengeful murder of Agamemnon, Klytaemnestra haunts the halls in a desperate search for sleep, something she believes her mystical daughter Elektra can provide. But Elektra spends her days plotting to kill her mother as payback for her father’s death and hopes that her long-lost brother Orestes will show up to help execute her plot. When he arrives in disguise, Hofmannsthal lets loose a wholly modern family revenge tragedy, without need of gods, fate, or appeals to militaristic chauvinism.
For the most part, Fedo’s cast exploits the play’s expressionist excess with skill, creating inner lives rich enough to turn potentially cartoonish monsters into towering neurotics. Lisa Stran White is particularly affecting as an overbearing but debilitated Klytaemnestra seemingly held together by spite and paranoia. But Nancy Moricette’s indulgent, cliched antics create neither a coherent Elektra nor any moments of recognizable human psychology, leaving a gaping hole at the production’s center.
Perhaps Rogue’s biggest lapse in judgment is to conclude its exhausting event with Mee’s tortured Orestes 2.0. The play takes place in what might be a convalescent home for combat casualties–who might also be mass murderers–where Orestes recuperates from something or other. He and his ward mates are nursed and tormented by three black-clad, board-game-playing, trash-talking women barely suggestive of the Furies who hound Orestes in the original myth after he commits matricide. Through copious borrowings from the writings of William Burroughs, Apollinaire, Bret Easton Ellis, John Wayne Gacy, Vogue, and Soap Opera Digest–all lacquered together with gallons of easy irony–Mee reconstructs the murder trial that concludes Aeschylus’ “Oresteia.” Despite generally strong acting, the 70-minute jumble resembles a poorly shepherded college experiment. Mee’s substitution of hip, glib pastiche for dramatic thoroughness or intellectual rigor is a poor reward for an audience’s endurance.
When: Through 8/28. See Section 2 for times.
Where: Athenaeum Theatre, first-floor studio, 2936 N. Southport
Price: $12-$15 per play, $30 for full trilogy