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A CurtainUp DC Review

We have the power to speak and to listen. — The chorus

Kelley Curran as Clytemnestra (Photo by Scott Suchman)
There's something thrilling about walking into a theater in May, 2019 to see a play that was first performed before 15,000 people in Athens in 458 E. B. C. So the expectations are high when attending the Oresteia at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre. The play is somehow contemporary as it delivers messages about revenge and justice that ring as true today as they must have nearly 2,500 years ago.

Under the direction of Michael Kahn, in collaboration with translator/adaptor/playwright Ellen McLaughlin, the three plays — Agememnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides— that comprise the Oresteia have been pared down to approximately two and a half hours. Some lines and some extraneous characters have been removed—most notably Clytemnestra's lover — and the language has been made accessible to a 21st century audience. The themes of revenge, mercy and justice remain vital.

The production itself is visually stunning thanks to Susan Hilferty's scenic and costume designs. The House of Atreus at center stage, never looked better. A simple but ample stone-like structure set against a backdrop and floor of lava-like grey. Composer Kamala Sankaram's whiney almost metallic sounds fill the auditorium even before the play begins and continue to highlight changes in mood throughout. The sound designer's ticking clock is effective too. Jennifer Tipton did the lighting which is quite startling and dramatic when the action calls for it and serene when it does not. The stars that light the sky at the beginning of Act One are beautiful to look at but they belie the action that is to come.

Even with the removal of subplots and the shortening of the trilogy, the evening moves at a slow, deliberate speed. Agamemnon (Kelcey Watson) has sacrificed his youngest daughter, Iphigenia (Simone Warren, in a sweet performance) so that he can go to war in Troy. His return ten years later, with Cassandra (an almost feral Zoe Sophia Garcia) in tow, brings out the worst in the central character, Clytemnestra (played with stealy grace and facetious effect by Kelley Curran). Harsh and cruel at times, she is seductive too. Not a great mother, though.

When joined in Act Three by her children, Orestes (Josiah Bania) and Electra (Rad Pereira), Clytemnestra shows no maternal feelings. On the contrary, she cannot wait to be rid of them and they of her. Josiah Bania's Orestes is forceful and yet filled with remorse. When receiving directions from an unseen Apollo, Orestes's body goes into epileptic fit-like movements which draw attention away from what is being said. This is the only false note conceived by Movement Director Jennifer Archibald. The rest, especially as pertains to the chorus, adds dramatically to understanding the dialogue.

ng throughout is the chorus — a motley group of tall, short, thin, not thin actors — wearing wrapped cloth and turbans in muted colors. Watching them is almost mesmerizing. They function as an ensemble but at times individually. One is reminded that there are no small parts when Helen Carey, who is in that chorus, talks about how she cared for Orestes when he was young. Her performance is a highlight of the evening.

The Kahn/McLaughlin Oresteia ends not with a court scene as in the original but with a debate among citizens as to what punishment, if any, Orestes deserves. Their decision is that we are all responsible for what happens no matter where, no matter when.

Michael Kahn, who is retiring after 33-years as Artistic Director, transformed the Shakespeare Theatre from a local band of so-so actors working at the Folger Theatre into a cultural powerhouse that is now recognized as one of the most important classical theatres in the country. He always had an uncanny knack for scheduling plays from the classical canon that speak to the trials of contemporary life. For that his audience is most grateful.

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Oresteia by Aeschylus, translated and adapted by Ellen McGlaughlin
Director, Michael Kahn
Movement Director, Jennifer Archibald
Scenic and Costume Designer, Susan Hilferty
Lighting Designer, Jennifer Tipton
Sound Designer, Cricket S. Myers
Composer, Kamala Sankaram

Cast: Kelley Curran (Clytemnestra); Simone Warren (Iphigenia); Kelcey Watson (Agamemnon); Zoƫ Sophia Garcia (Cassandra); Rad Pereira (Electra); Josiah Bania (Orestes); Corey Allen, Kati Brazda, Helen Carey, Jonathan Louis Dent, Franchelle Steward Dorn, Alvin Keith Patrena Murray; Sophia Skiles (Chorus)

Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Shakespeare From April 30 to June 2, 2019. Reviewed by Susan Davidson at May 6, 2019 performance.

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