An Oresteia, Part I @ Classic Stage Company, New York

cast list
Craig Baldwin, Michi Barall, Jess Barbagallo, Annika Boras, Yusef Bulos, Eric Dyer, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Dan Hurlin, Karinne Keithley, Doan Ly, Christopher McCann, Steve Mellor, David Neumann, Mickey Solis, Ching Valdes-Aran

directed by
Brian Kulick and Gisela Cardenas
Anne Carson, in attempting to create a modern version of The Oresteia for our times, has combined the plays of Aiskhylos, Sophokles, and Euripides in a new modern verse adaptation incorporating each playwright’s attempts at chronicling the legendary House of Atreus, using their juxtaposition as a way of examining the three writers’ varied methods as regards Greek tragedy.

In Classic Stage Company’s latest Classic newsletter, which focuses on Carson’s adaptations, artistic director Brian Kulick explains the evolution of the Atreus story as being one from morning to evening, with Aiskhylos’s Agamemnon representing morning, Sophokles’s Elektra broad daylight, and Euripides’s Orestes the evening.

Though Kulick earnestly sets forth this idea, however, the first two plays of An Oresteia do little to convincingly fulfill the promise of this fascinating concept.
It’s clear from the start of Agamemnon that something is strange about these daring new productions. The cubic plywood set, with windows cut out on its sides to accommodate patrons on the auditorium’s side sections, is inhabited by three cleaning men scrubbing the blood off the walls as we arrive in the theatre.

Once Aiskhylos’s drama is in full swing, it becomes clear that this is not going to be a production for the weak-willed. There’s an abundance of violence on display and plenty of shouting. Stephanie Roth Haberle plays the role of Klytaimestra with too much surface-level scorn, but, alternatively, Doan Ly as Kassandra is great at playing mad, her screams of terror enough to curdle one’s blood.

The translation of Agamemnon seem less polished than that for Elektra, perhaps because the former was the last of the plays in the triad to be adapted. Modern phrases like “OK” mix uneasily with the high-minded speech patterns of the gods.

Things take a pleasant turn, however, as Elektra begins. Finally, the production finds its stride, setting up a cohesive concept for the middle of the three plays. Annika Boras is wonderfully steely as Elektra, daughter to Klytaimestra, the queen. Boras plays Elektra with a tomboyish burliness, accentuated by her new emo look, complete with angsty eye makeup.

The chorus in Elektra are beach bums rather than servants, as they were in Agamemnon, played with aplomb by Craig Baldwin, Ching Valdes-Aran, and Doan Ly, each putting on delightfully modern airs as they lounge on their towels, donning oversized sunglasses.

Despite the achievements of Carson’s Elektra (the original inspiration for this production), however, there’s still something lacking in the production as a whole. Though Carson’s sometimes spotty translations always seem accessible to an audience, the design concept as a whole, particularly Ricardo Hernandez’s set, never honors the sentiment of Kulick’s concept for the production. There is no shift from morning to afternoon between these two plays. Both take place in the boxy environs of the Classic Stage Space, as transformed into a one-note construction site, a boxed-in, low-lit space.

Thankfully Aiskhylos’s original singularly-authored Oresteia highlighted the shift in systems of justice from informal revenge to formal judiciary, and this idea remains seeded somewhere in Kulick’s and Cardenas’s production. It’s a shame, however, they couldn’t have played more with the limits of the stage in creating a more cohesive and dramatically satisfying evening of tragic Greek theatre.

This review is based solely on viewing An Oresteia, Pt. I. Parts I and II play in repertory at Classic Stage Company through 19 April 2009.

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