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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
History is rife with stories of families torn asunder by hate and vengeance. None match the terrible deeds that cursed the ancient House of Atreus from generation to generation. What a family! A father murders his own child to win a war, a cousin usurps that man in his marital bed and kingdom, the adulterous wife kills the returning warrior and his concubine to avenge her dead daughter, and the son who unlike Hamlet has no problem killing the mother and her new royal consort in retribution.
The Oresteia, which weaves the Atreus clan's tragedy into a triptych of plays, is the greatest work of the earliest known dramatist, Aeschylus. Even 2458 years after it was written you still marvel at the dramaturgical skill with which the poet combines the bloody events with concepts of divine and human justice. His character portraits, particularly of the women, seem a finely drawn as ever.
While a majestic drama with a timely combination of family and national strife and murder trial, The Oresteia, even with judicious cuts, is long and requires a large cast. In today's economic climate, that means we must rely on a small and classically rooted company like the Pearl Theatre Company to give us a chance to once again experience its power. The Pearl has done just that and, what's more, in alternating repertory with Congreve's The Way of the World (see link). This makes for an added treat since it enables audiences to see Pearl regulars and guest actors play very different roles. None of these actors are big name stars, but they rate star treatment for mastering such different roles, not to mention all those lines.
Using a clear translation by Peter Meineck, director Shepard Sobel has given us a crisply paced production that clocks in at under three hours, with The Agamemnon, the first and longest play, running an hour and ten minutes. Set designer Beowulf Boritt has created a fittingly somber setting, dominated by a central panel that slides open and shut for the entrances and exits of key players. Barbara A. Bell's costumes are in a complementary tan, gray and black palette.
As if performing in two plays in repertory weren't enough, the actors assume multiple solo and ensemble roles in The Oresteia. With the exception of Jay Russell, who plays both the duplicitous Aegisthus and Apollo, the women make the strongest impression.
Joanne Camp fully inhabits the fiery Clytemnestra. In the first play she pretends to welcome her husband Agamemnon (Dan Daily, strong on vocal delivery but not particularly regal) back from his ten year battle with Troy, only to murder him as he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia so that the Gods would give wind to his sailing ships. When her exiled son Orestes (Christopher Moore who doesn't quite project the depth of his pain or Greek grandeur) returns to avenge his father in The Libation Bearers she defends her actions with equal fervor. Her defense falls on deaf ears since Orestes, unlike Hamlet under similar circumstances, has no problem killing her or his stepfather. True to Aeschylus' intent, Clytemnestra is not an inhuman monster, but above all an outraged mother and, in the end, overcome by the fearful realization that in her vengeance she is after all merely the instrument of " the Doom that broods over the House of Atreus."
Rachel Botchan is most impressive as the omniscient and also doomed Cassandra, the daughter of the king of Troy whom Agamemnon has brought home as his slave and concubine. Realizing that her prophesies are useless because noone will listen to them, she bravely faces her death declaring "I do not pity myself; I pity mankind." Agamemnon's daughter Electra, whose story is most frequently staged as an independent play (usually by Sophocles), here has a rather small part of which Katherine Leask makes the most.
As vital to the overall drama as the vengeful royals and Gods are the trios who make up each play's Greek Chorus. In The Agamemnon the chorus consists of the elder citizens of Argos (Robert Hock, Mikel Sarah Lambert, John Wylie). They listen and comment and try to warn Agamemnon against the trouble and danger inside his home. In the middle play, the chorus consists of the slave women of the royal household, with Rachel Botchan, Robin Leslie Brown and especially Carol Schultz showing that they can sing as well as act. (Singing lamentations are very much in the Greek drama tradition).
In The Eumenides we have the last and most dynamic chorus, the Furies (Robert Hock, Mikel Sarah Lambert, Katherine Leask), who pursue Orestes to the final and thought-provoking confrontation with a judge (the goddess Athena, ably played by Carol Schultz) and jury of Athenian citizens (most of the cast not otherwise engaged). All in black and horribly masked and ghoulish, they weave terror as they close in on their victims. It is said that when the play was first staged, some Athenian women were so horrified that they fainted and went into early labor. Horrible, as they are, Aeschylus through Athenia, persuades us that the Furies can indeed change into daughter of grace. Their acceptance of the middle course also give hope that moral order can rise out of the tragic pattern of lives such as those we've watched.
CurtainUp's review of The Way of the World
Other Greek dramas reviewed atCurtainUp:s Sophocles' Electra. . .Euripides' The Iphigenia Cycle . . . Electra. . .Euripides'