Theatre Reviews
Photo courtesy of Washington University

"The Oresteia" has been around for a long, long time. This masterwork by Æschylus, “the father of Greek tragedy”, won first prize in the Dionysian Festival in 458 B.C. Yet its theme remains as fresh as this morning’s headlines: Justice vs. Vengeance.

Washington University’s Performing Arts Department has opened a very fine production of this remarkable new translation by Ellen McLaughlin. (It premiered in 2019.)

This is a tale of vengeance upon vengeance upon vengeance. Now the old Greeks were big on intra-family slaughter. You’ll recall, of course, Œdipus killing his father and all those unfortunate events that follow. Well, in "The Oresteia" King Agamemnon kills his little daughter, Iphigenia, as a sacrifice to Artemis so that his ship can get fair winds to take him to fight Troy. Mama Clytemnestra is not pleased. She vows vengeance. But the war at Troy drags on for ten years, so her revenge will have to be served cold. But, as we see here, it will have a hot red sauce. (No, not Tabasco.)

Clytemnestra has sent her little son, Orestes, off to safety in a foreign land. The war grinds on. Orestes grows up. Here begins our play.

1) Agamemnon returns and is promptly axed to death by his wife.

2) Orestes returns and kills his mother to pay her back.

3) The Furies pursue and hassle Orestes until the gods allow a trial by the people of Athens. The stain of Orestes’ crime is ceremonially purged.

Playwright McLaughlin has compressed Æschylus’ trilogy into a single play running a fairly taut two-and-a-half hours (with intermission).

• One major character is absent: Ægisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover. He had his own debt of multi-generational revenge against Agamemnon. When Ms. McLaughlin asks him to step away she simplifies and focuses the first revenge, placing it into the supremely competent hands of Clytemnestra.
• Pylades is gone too. He was a friend accompanying Orestes on his quest for vengeance. He’s not missed.
• Much of the reference to the gods (and most of their intervention) is removed, making this a play about people and their responsibilities with regard to justice.
• In a scene omitted by Æschylus Ms. McLaughlin shows us Iphigenia leaping into her father’s bosom for safety only to be carried off to her death.

Professor Pannill Camp directs an excellent cast of student actors.

Now when Mark Blitzstein made an opera from "The Little Foxes" he very properly changed the title to "Regina." Ellen McLaughlin’s beautiful new "Oresteia" could equally justifiably be titled "Clytemnestra." Not only does this queen now have sole agency in wreaking her vengeance, but she dominates the play while living and even comes back to haunt it after she dies. And in the person of Isobel Hobbs director Camp has found an actress sublimely capable of the role. She’s gifted with a rich and expressive voice, impeccable diction, consummate physical grace, and obvious intelligence. Wow! And costumer Dominique Green blesses her with such lovely gowns—which Ms. Hobbs wears very well indeed.

Tiny Caitlin Souers brings a convincing pre-adolescent innocence to the role of Iphigenia, then later magically becomes adult as a member of the Chorus.

Dylan McKenna, as Agamemnon, makes him an obsessive warrior, a little suspicious returning after all these years.

Ella Sherlock plays the captive Cassandra, Agamemnon’s war trophy. She gives a strong portrayal of this mad prophetess. The luckless Cassandra is also murdered by the queen.

Alexander Hewlett and Brenna Jones play Orestes and Electra—properly filled with hate and fear. (Ms. Jones also takes part in the Chorus.)

The Chorus is completed by Eli Bradley, Sami Ginoplos, Melia Van Hecke, Marielle Hinrichs, Chloe Kilpatrick and Mary Ziegler. Fine work is done by all. Mr. Bradley shows particularly good diction and physical wit, beginning as a watch-tower guard at the opening of the show.

The Chorus, in this version is rather more like a musical chorus than is usual: phrases are often begun by one member, then repeated or extended by another and another—all slightly overlapping. This is an aspect of the deeply poetic nature of this work. We’re not in blank verse, but Ms. McLaughlin fills the text with such strong imagery and metaphor and irony. The women of the chorus tell of seeing their sons off to war “with our hopes circling their heads like butterflies.” Agamemnon, a worried general, is described as a panther “pacing the cage of his responsibility”. Clytemnestra says, after killing her husband, “I bathed in his blood like a summer rain! My arm is heavy with justice!”

With the old Greeks (as with Christianity) guilt must be washed away with blood. After Agamemnon is killed Clytemnestra calls out, “All is finally well! I have cleaned the house!!” Ironically that very sentiment is repeated after she herself is killed: Electra cries out, “Rejoice! It is finally over!!”

But it’s not over. There are still the Furies to contend with!

Director Camp designed the setting—an empty stage, with great palace doors at the rear. Very like what the ancient actors performed with—and perfectly effective. Crimson streams of cloth pour from the heavens as the first killing happens off-stage.

There is, at one side, a huge drum and other percussion instruments. Composer/performer Henry Claude plays these with exquisite timing and sensitivity, to add monstrous booms, subtle shimmers, clangs, chimes, and the frightening rustle of the Furies’ leather wings.

The fluid and dramatic lighting was designed by Paige Samz.

David Marchant is credited with Movement design, and his handling of the chorus is marvelous. At the pitch-black opening of Act 2 the chorus comes on, each bearing a small lighted candle. They slowly mingle, place and re-place the candles, drift, mingle. It’s beautiful and mysterious, and this small group of people seem like dozens.

Act 2 has moments that test our patience—argumentation that seems repetitious and verges on the tedious. A little judicial trimming would be welcome.

And in the end that old question is still without a clear answer. What is Justice? Like the Greeks we all want Justice--but we’re not quite sure what it is. Is it really more than just an eye for an eye? The ancient conundrum remains a conundrum.

Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable and beautiful adaptation. It will make you think. It plays at the Edison Theatre through March 5.

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