… cycles of vengeance …

“Oresteia” refers to Aeschylus’ trilogy about the chain of vengeance murders in the House of Atreus — House as in “noble family who live in the palace”.  Classic Stage begins their Oresteia with Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, moving to Sophocles’ Elektra for part two, and Euripides’ Orestes for part three.  How often does one have the chance to see together three great Greek tragedies fully produced!  This is an ambitious project, and worthwhile for bringing these exciting and profound works to new audiences.  This production has excellent qualities, including Anne Carson’s naturalistic but intense translations and some peaks of acting, though some aspects are less satisfying.

… Agamemnon …

In Aeschylus’ play, the Greek leader in the Trojan War, Agamemnon, returns home to Argos where he, and his captive concubine, Cassandra, are soon murdered by his wife, Klytaimnestra. This is a vengeance killing:  the Greeks sailing to Troy had found themselves becalmed and Agamemnon, in search of a favorable wind had sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenaia, to the gods.

After seeing this production, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Stephanie Roth Haberle in the role of Klytaimnestra: she has a strong and richly inflected voice, and with her tall and exceedingly narrow form and in her blood red dress she seems the very embodiment of a sharp-edged weapon.  As Agamemnon, though, Steve Mellor opts for a casual hands in his pocket effect and doesn’t project his voice; perhaps this is intended to deconstruct a cliche of the proud and triumphant ruler, but Agamemnon a wimp?  Cassandra screams and gyrates but does not reach the character’s emotional depth.  In general, throughout this production the actors seem to be straining for effect, notable exceptions being in the magnificent performances of Haberle as Klytaimnestra and Annika Boras as Elektra.

The versatile, red stained plywood backdrop for all three plays evokes the bloody constant in this House.  During Agamemnon, though, the set was pulled forward blocking sight of the stage to those sitting on the sides, the explanation being that this was “alternative seating”;  it struck me and others as less than respectful to those stuck in the alternate seats.

… Elektra …

In Sophocles’ Electra, Orestes, the son of Klytaimnestra and Agamemnon, returns from exile and kills his mother in vengeance for her murder of his father.  The straightforward English of Anne Carson’s translation makes the great arguments of this play excitingly immediate.  This is also particularly successful among the three plays because the large role of the bitter and uncompromising Elektra is played by an outstanding actor, Annika Boras.  If you don’t know Sophocles well, here’s a chance to see the brilliant way he writes hot and building verbal conflicts between two characters whose points of view are totally irreconcilable.  The most famous Sophoclean argument is in Antigone (see Pearl Theatre’s Theban Cycle, here below in October) but Elektra’s arguments are equally dazzling.  Boras’ sardonic Elektra argues with Haberle’s haughty, frightened Klytaimnestra — great on great.  Michi Barall as Elektra’s conventionally minded sister doesn’t have as strong a voice to counter Boras but does well enough to let the playwrights words come through so you can “get” it.

It’s amusing to see the Chorus of “Women of Mycenae” turned into two sunbathing women and a man around the pool, with sunglasses — that’s OK — but on the other hand it’s illogical that these friends and confidants of Elektra are allowed to live the life of Reilly in Klytaimnestra’s palace while she and her paramour, Aigisthos, are hatefully demeaning Elektra herself.

… Orestes …

Even if you know what’s coming, Euripides’ Orestes shocks by its apparent cynicism.  The questions of Euripides’ attitudes toward his fellow human beings and the gods is continually — perhaps eternally — debated and the play puts the ambiguities on display.  None of the characters, including the god Apollo, is high-minded and there’s no indication of redemption such as one finds in Aeschylus.  Mickey Solis plays Orestes as anxiety ridden and deeply depressed — getting out of bed is a challenge.  It’s reasonable to interpret Orestes’ pursuit by the Furies in terms of modern psychology (and Euripides is often called “the most modern of the playwrights”) but one needs to keep in mind:  only six days have passed since he killed his mother.  Give the boy some time!  Still, Euripides leaves us feeling that there’s not much peace of mind ahead for this matricide in any event.

A fine and daring aspect of this Orestes was to turn Euripides’ Chorus of Women of Argos, along with Hermione, daughter of Helen of Troy, into singers and musicians.  Daring because so little is known about Greek singing, but the choral odes were certainly sung and danced:  contemporary melodies, dance and instrumentation, as here, are creative ways to acknowledge what’s unknown while maintaining the pleasures of music.  With some of the performers the singing was beautiful and insinuating — new but, yes, pure Euripides — though with others, the singing masked Euripides’ poetry.

Three playwrights — of any epoch — carrying through on a single narrative line is rare and of great interest.  There are some rough edges here but the cumulative effect of this Oresteia brings one in touch with the powers of the classical Greek playwrights to move and to provoke thought.

Agamemnon and Elektra are directed by Brian Kulick and Gisela Cardenas, and Orestes is directed by Paul Lazar, and associate directed and choreographed by Annie-B Parson.

An Oresteia plays at Classic Stage in NYC East Village through April 19, 2009.  Choices between seeing the three plays on one Sunday (I did) or two on one night and one another.