Orestes: An Alternative Rock Musical

Roadworks Productions

at Famous Door Theatre Company

By Albert Williams

It’s a tale so lurid it makes Erik and Lyle Menendez look like the Hardy Boys: A brother and sister, heirs of the most powerful family in town, slaughter their mother because she killed her husband, their father. On trial for the crime, the matricides insist it was righteous, even divinely ordained; besides, they argue in a bid for sympathy, with a family history like theirs, how could they help it? Then, when the court sentences them to death, the siblings and their loyal accomplice murder the wife of the city’s top official and kidnap his daughter, setting the stage for a fiery hostage-crisis climax.

Is this the latest case of family bloodletting or the plot of a new made-for-cable thriller? No, folks, it’s Orestes, which first played ancient Greece in 408 BC. Though it’s been updated by playwright Charles L. Mee, the basic material comes from the Greek tragedian Euripides, who played fast and loose with a timeless myth in his pursuit of spectacular, politically charged drama. Often unfamiliar even to people who claim acquaintance with the likes of Oedipus Rex, The Bacchae, and the Oresteia, Euripedes’ play depicts the title character–traditionally an icon of heroic suffering, torn by conflicting duties and hounded by the demonic Furies for his action–as a weak-willed, cowardly, bungling thug whose only redeeming quality is his devotion to his sister, the ruthless Electra.

Orestes is alienated from family, society, and apparently even the god who encouraged the vengeful crime (“a juvenile delinquent of a startlingly modern depravity,” the classical scholar Bernard M.W. Knox has written). Of course, he is heir to ancient Greece’s most dysfunctional dynasty, the house of Atreus. His ancestors include Zeus, king of the gods; Zeus’s son Tantalus, who killed his son Pelops and served the remains to the gods at a banquet; Pelops’ son Atreus, who emulated his grandfather by cooking his nephews in a stew; Atreus’ sons Menelaus (whose wife Helen precipitated the Trojan War with her adultery) and Agamemnon, king of Argos and father of Orestes and Electra, who sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in an effort to ensure Greek victory in the Trojan War; and Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra–Helen of Troy’s sister–who waited ten years for her husband to return from Troy a hero so that she and her lover could butcher him in his bath.

This mythic cycle of betrayal and bloodshed has fascinated artists and audiences for millennia. Two of this season’s most interesting shows were the European Repertory Company’s rotating-rep package of house of Atreus plays–performed, like Orestes, not in the Greek originals but in modern adaptations. Steven Berkoff’s Agamemnon (still playing) filters Aeschylus through a horrific, Vietnam-era sensibility; Jean Giraudoux reworks Euripides’ Electra to explore compromise versus absolutism in the context of pre-World War II Europe. Now Mee, an East Coast playwright with a longstanding interest in Greek tragedy, has teamed up with Chicago’s Roadworks Productions to deliver an Orestes steeped in 90s nihilism.

Amplified–and sometimes obscured–by rock and roll songs and video imagery, this collaboration between Mee and director Abby Epstein makes a number of alterations to its source. Some are cosmetic changes in the language. (Orestes, screaming at the Furies in William Arrowsmith’s translation of Euripides: “For god’s sake, Mother, keep them away, those bitches with bloodshot eyes, those writhing snakes!” In Mee’s version: “Get these cocksuckers off me, or I’ll fuck you up, you bitch!”) Other changes are substantive: Mee incorporates texts ranging from Bret Easton Ellis’s and William S. Burroughs’s depictions of sexual psychosis to the confessions of John Gacy to trivia from Vogue and Soap Opera Digest. Euripides’ chorus of Argive women has been turned into a sextet of hypo-wielding nurses, whose black clothing and teased hair evoke the snake-headed Furies. They attend not only to Orestes–who starts the play strapped down on a psychiatrist’s couch–but to a trio of maimed soldiers, whose commentary ranges from sadistic fantasies of rape and genocide to accounts of wartime atrocities to the need for positive messages in popular entertainment. “We need a little more I wanna,” says one vet as he flips his TV remote, “and not so much I am.”

The impulse behind his comment–the driving need to escape problems by invoking false goodwill, sham heroics, and “traditional values”–is the theme of Euripides’ (and Roadworks’) Orestes. It finds its fullest expression in the last scene, a deus ex machina of unparalleled absurdity. Orestes, who presumed that Menelaus would support his having avenged Agamemnon’s death, is, like, really pissed that his uncle–the quintessential risk-averse soldier-politician, who sent thousands to their deaths so he could reclaim his faithless Helen–declines out of concern for his public standing. So Orestes, Electra, and their loyal friend Pylades storm their way to freedom, assassinating Helen, setting fire to the city, and holding Menelaus’ daughter Hermione hostage. Then Apollo descends to restore order. Orestes will go free, the god declares–and will marry Hermione to boot, while Electra will wed Pylades. Helen will ascend to heaven as a goddess.

The happy ending intentionally rings as false as Macheath’s last-minute reprieve by the queen’s messenger in The Threepenny Opera. In Roadworks’ production Apollo is an empty suit descending from the ceiling, with disembodied voice provided by radio personality Aaron Freeman; Hermione is a rag doll, which makes her peril less than perilous and Orestes’ future marriage less than exhilarating. And Helen–vain, vapid, and Vanna-esque–is a TV talking head guaranteed eternal life through syndication, plugging her organic beauty secrets. (Is this the face that launched a thousand products?)

Such anachronisms are in the spirit of Euripides, who tricked up his account of the legend with sub-rosa references to the volatility and treachery of Athenian politics, mocking a civilization that claimed cultural greatness while its social fabric was unraveling. Mee obviously considers 1990s America to be in much the same situation, only worse–paralyzed by its disbelief in conventional values and its failure to supplant them with better ones, distracted by the flood of conflicting ideas and half-baked opinions pouring over the airwaves.

Epstein’s busy, sometimes messy staging relies heavily on technology to reinforce Mee’s vision, with mixed results. The video sequences, designed by Tara Munson and Tonia Pizzato, switch back and forth from sensationalistic talk-show and soap-opera footage to idyllic scenes from travelogues to pseudo-gritty newsbreaks (with Warner Saunders yet), portraying a society where mass communication means miscommunication. Epstein has also outfitted the cast with hand mikes and headsets to suggest a terminally tuned-in generation. Less effective are the generic, forgettable rock songs by Ben Sussmann and Andre Pluess (played by a five-piece band squirreled away in a balcony). Their innocuous melodies and sophomorically preachy lyrics (when audible) fail to convey the characters’ alienation, giving the musical sequences an air of collegiate earnestness. And Peter Carpenter’s deadpan dance sequences more often muddy the story than further it.

But a number of effective episodes outweigh these flaws. Several speeches are thought provoking, among them a long, caustic monologue by Clytemnestra’s mother dissecting in icy detail a society that “speaks nicely and behaves barbarously.” Luke Cantarella’s in-the-round set, well lit by Joel Moritz, transforms the venerable Jane Addams Center Hull House auditorium into a once-lovely, now-shabby neighborhood of red brick houses, with a green lawn turned into a makeshift hospital.

The characters, tellingly costumed by Mara Blumenfeld, are well acted if not always well sung. Christopher Gerson’s beautiful, blond, blood-spattered Orestes is convincingly moody and manic, though Gerson’s singing voice isn’t resonant enough to carry the words with the subtlety and clarity of his speaking voice. Debbie Bisno is a memorable Electra–taut and tense until a bit of welcome advice exonerates her. “What if I had Jupiter in my natal conjunction?” she asks her phone astrologer (the wonderfully ingenuous Mitchell Fain). Her face lights up at his profound response: “Wow.”

Jason Winer’s Menelaus is suitably oily–the statesman as spin doctor–though the role would be helped by a bigger and more mature actor. M. Darlene Hunt is wonderful as Tyndareus, delivering her soft-spoken denunciations in a southern accent and with devastating politeness. Tricia Kym Armstrong is the coolheaded expert witness in Orestes’ defense, citing “common law precedent” to claim that mothers aren’t really parents, only incubators that nurture the father’s seed. (This misogynistic argument is actually put forth by Apollo in The Eumenides, Aeschylus’ take on the Orestes story.) And Matt Scharff, Derek Hasenstab, and Brad Light are unforgettable as the three veterans–wasted, wounded, apathetic leftovers of a meaningless war thrust back into a purposeless peace. Cut away the intrusive songs, clean up the staging, and Roadworks’ Orestes is a timely, compelling new spin on one of Western culture’s most enduring and revealing sagas.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Phil M. Kohmetz.