National Pastime

at the Greenview Arts Center

At first it might seem a good time to revive The Orphan, David Rabe’s Nixon-era variation on Aeschylus’s Oresteia. A follow-up to Sticks and Bones and The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Rabe’s anguished, absurdist dissections of the Vietnam war, The Orphan links the tragedy of Orestes–the ancient Greek prince who killed his mother Clytemnestra after she murdered his war-hero father Agamemnon–with the carnage and chaos of Vietnam and the Charles Manson murders. Potentially resonant stuff now, as President Clinton reopens trade with Vietnam (hoping to pry loose information about missing American soldiers)–and as Guns ‘N’ Roses’ recording of Manson’s “Look at Your Game, Girl” returns the cult leader to the public eye.

Developed through several productions between 1968 and 1974 (its most prominent staging was in 1973, at Joe Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival), The Orphan probes for the roots of violence beneath age-old rhetoric about national purpose and masculine pride. Aeschylus, a hero of the Persian Wars, glorified an ascendant Athens confident in its greatness; but Rabe, a Kennedy Democrat and Vietnam draftee disillusioned by his experience in southeast Asia, was addressing a deeply divided America in an atmosphere so angry and confused that psychopaths like Manson and his followers could take on the trappings of counterculture icons. As they have again, in a time when prime-time TV routinely broadcasts infotainment images of crimes that make the Manson family look like the Waltons. (Thanks, Chas.)

National Pastime, a new troupe populated in large part by graduates of DePaul University’s theater school, is a company with a mission–the program speaks of “setting to rights the jaded viewpoints of a generation weaned on passive entertainment” and addressing “our culture’s horrifying de-sensitization to violence.” And in retrieving Rabe’s neglected Orphan it has chosen a play with a purpose. But though the purpose is good, the play is dreadful–a studious, sterile piece of postgraduate pomposity that seems all the more immature in comparison to its successor, Rabe’s brilliant, terrifying Streamers, which makes similar but more gripping and convincing arguments about senseless yet inevitable violence.

Where Streamers gives the audience characters to care about, The Orphan offers concepts and conceits, including a Clytemnestra divided between two actresses (“split like an atom,” we’re told), an Orestes who plans a speaking tour, a chorus leader who spouts scientific factoids from a center-stage TV screen, and a cosmically cynical Apollo who feeds psychedelic mushrooms to his flaky followers and goads Orestes toward matricide not for the sake of justice but to prove the meaninglessness of a world in which, the play maintains, we are all existential orphans.

Aeschylus spoke of his work as “scraps from Homer’s banquet”; if so, Rabe’s play is warmed-up leftovers from Aeschylus’s icebox. Stilted pseudoclassical language is mixed with glib slang like “Oh wow” and “What goes around comes around.” In the play’s most pointed segment, Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and unindicted coconspirator, defends his law-and-order regime (Orestes’ sister Electra has her hands and tongue cut off after she protests Aegisthus’s rule) and his ongoing war against the Vietnamese. But Rabe’s not really interested in political satire, of Nixon or anyone else; his concern is the innate predisposition toward violence that makes all humans equally guilty–or rather innocent–of history’s endless cycle of slaughter. Such sweeping notions need much more dramatic credibility than Rabe’s stick-figure characterizations provide.

The young National Pastime cast storms bravely through the mythopoetic muck, with technical assurance but precious little believability. The most enjoyable work comes from Erick Konczyk, whose sly, peevish Manson/Apollo comes off a bit like Streamers’ gay gadfly Richie; he injects much-needed humor into the ponderous proceedings. James M. Lynch’s dutiful, unimaginative direction hints unconvincingly at both ancient Athens (ritualistic friezes and togas) and 60s America (headbands and hand mikes) and avoids gruesome visual effects–whether because of moral conscience or cost consciousness, I’m not sure–robbing the show of any visceral impact. Even Clytemnestra’s protracted torture-murder of Agamemnon seems strangely blase, lacking any of the horror Rabe surely intended. In a hesitant effort to recall the time in which the play was written, the production starts each act by playing the Beatles’ White Album; but lacking the “Helter Skelter” energy that characterizes its theme, The Orphan’s talky two and a half hours left this viewer singing along with another cut from the same record: “I’m so-o-o tired . . . ”