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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The story of King Agamemnon's downfall is the first in the trilogy by the 5th Century BC playwright Aeschylus known as the Oresteia. This chronicle of the House of Atreus is so bloody that it has become a common allusion for family feuding at its most extreme.
In the Aquila Company's production of Agamemnon which just opened at the John Jay Theater, Olympia Dukakis and Louis Zorich abandon their every day roles as husband and wife to play the king bent on avenging the snatching of his brother's wife Helen and the queen equally fixated on avenging his sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia to this cause.
Directed by Meineck C. Richmond and Aquila's producing artistic director Peter Meineck (whose new translation is used), we are treated to many visually arresting moments. These begin with our seeing the Watchman (Luis Butelli who after his "fiddler on the roof" turn, becomes part of the chorus) employed by Clytemnestra (Dukakis) to look out for the burning flame that would signal Troy's capture after a ten-year siege. Actually, the watchman's rooftop perch only appears to be part of a building as a result of being cast in darkness by the multi-faceted Meineck's lighting. It is, in fact, a simple swinglike contraption which can easily disappear in keeping with Meineck G. Richmond's basically unfurnished set. The mood of gloom and inevitable doom is further underscored by the measured choreographic movements and Anthony Cochrane's somber original score.
Unlike the Pearl Theater which used an older Meineck translation and conflated the entire triptych into a single evening, the Aquila has opted to give Agamemnon its full due, with plans afoot to mount The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides. As I very much liked the recent combined two part version of Shakespeare's Henry IV, I also found the all-in-one Oresteia put on four seasons ago at the Pearl more satisfying. The drama lost nothing from moving from the announcement of Agamemnon's return to Clytemnestra and her lover Aegithus's (Barricelli) revenge in just an hour, and gained much from seeing it all of a piece.
Like many who revive these ancient dramas, Richmond and Meineck have put a century-spanning spin on their production. The choreography has a modern dance look (but don't expect Martha Graham!). Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes are a mix of periods -- the women in fairly traditional ancient Greek attire, the chorus of elders in 1940-50s business suits, overcoats and Fedoras, and Agamemnon stepping out of a jeep in a uniform resembling that of a Civil War general. Unfortunately, these directorial touches do not prevent this tragedy from moving too slowly and repetitiously towards its inevitable end.
Olympia Dukakis, who's no stranger to fiery Greek women, here seems to be called in to walk down the arched runway style entrance of her palace every time the audience's attention is in danger of flagging. To her credit she does not go overboard on the histrionics but instead settles for an icy and self-justifying persona. It is a solid if not mesmerizing performance. The same is true of Zorich's Agamemnon, Marco Baricelli's Aegisthus, Carissa Guild's Iphigenia as well as Miriam Laube as the omniscient and also doomed Cassandra (the daughter of the king of Troy Agamemnon has made his trophy mistress).
The new "angle " introduced in this Agamemnon is its embrace of recent scholarly attempts to highlight the psychological complexity of Clytemnestra as a strong woman struggling to have her way in a male dominated world. To highlight this challenge, the citizens to whom Clytemnestra must justify the vengeance plot seeded by generations of Atreus family strife, she is enveloped by the chorus of male elders.
What's minimized and, to be more specific, eliminated, are references to the Gods. Instead the chorus, often considered more deficit than asset, is given extraordinary prominence. The clutch of seven old men soaks the play in a macho atmosphere that emphasizes the uphill struggle of a lone woman holding her own against the male majority. While their matching outfits and the darkness surrounding the men individually and as a group create a look-alike shadowy picture, each is given a distinct voice. They include some fine actors like Nicholas Kepros and Thomas Schall.
The scholarly newness of this presentation notwithstanding, the solo and ensemble speeches, the glimpses of movement behind the upstage scrim, and Clytemnestra's periodic appearances on that ramp-like equivalent of a front porch are paced rather methodically and predictably. This can get somewhat -- dare I say it about this enduring classic -- boring.
This update of Agamemnon may lack the excitement of similarly revised Greek dramas, like David Leveaux's Electra and Debora Warner's Medea; but neither is it quite as wrong-headed as the recent Oresteia in which each part was given an interpretation unrelated to the others. Consider too that we've had not one, but two recent revivals of The Persians, and it's clear that though Aeschylus may be dead for thousands of years, his plays refuse to lie dormant in the theatrical dustbin. And there are more -- Seven Against Thebes or Prometheus Bound anyone?
LINKS TO OTHER PLAYS MENTIONED
The Persians by the National Actors Theater
The Persians Pearl Theatre production
The Oresteia Pearl Theatre production
The Oresteia Theater Faction
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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