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A CurtainUp Review
by Les Gutman
What a deliciously devilish marriage this is! On the one hand, we have Charles Mee, who has taken the well-known work of Euripedes and turned it on its head; on the other, Ellen Beckerman, who has taken Mee's re-creation and set that head spinning.
Mee likens his approach to that of Max Ernst's Fatagaga collages. He shuffles the Greek text with resonant references from our own culture (often rendered as entire speeches), creating a reflex in the audience that is quite remarkable, and toying with an underlying thesis that it is culture more than psychology (or, as the Greeks always conclude, the gods) that dictates actions.
Whatever the culture, Beckerman revels in trespassing on Mee's derogation of the psychic impulses by having her actors affect strong manifestations of their mental states, very much recalling her take on Hamlet (linked below). Placed on the blank canvas of a bare stage -- Beckerman's preferred setting -- and bathed in Michael O'Connor's lights, her three actor colleagues reveal an impressive battery of informing physical expressions, punctuated both by Beckerman's anarchically eclectic choice of music (what could be more inspired, after all, than "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child"?), and her ferocious interludes of dance/movement. The product -- the first in which she has worked with the material of a living collaborator -- is outstanding.
The House of Atreus is reeling after the end of the Trojan War. Six days ago, Orestes (James Saidy) killed his mother, Clytemnestra, because she had killed his father, Agamemnon. Now he, in a state of fitful anguish, and his accomplice-sister, Electra (Margot Ebling), are to be put to death for the crime. The issue of the moment: will they be stoned to death or have their throats cut. Their uncle Menelaus (Josh Conklin) is ineffectual in saving them; their grandfather, Tyndareus (also Conklin), demands their death for his daughter's murder. It's not until the arrival of Pylades (Conklin yet again), the good friend of Orestes, that a plan is hatched to save them: they will kill Helen (Ebling), the beautiful wife of Menelaus who, many will say, was responsible for the Trojan War and all its many tragedies, and kidnap her daughter, Hermione. Although the god Apollo shepherds Helen to heaven before she can be killed, the sight of a knife at Hermione's throat is enough to induce Menelaus to save the lives of the siblings. Orestes will go on to be king, Electra to marry Pylades.
So much for Euripedes and Greek mythology, and on to Mee. This Orestes commences with a matter-of-fact recitation of Clytemnestra's autopsy report, via a recorded voice. (While it is being read, Beckerman's actors can be seen writhing on a dimly but artfully lit stage.) Our introduction to socialite Helen of Troy is her recitation of her skin care regimen a la Bret Easton Ellis's Patrick Bateman. ("First of all, I cleanse my skin with products that cleanse but don't dry, products that are natural. I exfoliate my face once a week with a product that contains oatmeal, honey, and nuts. The toner I use is alcohol-free....") Nod (Conklin) and John (Saidy), characters Mee introduces into the play (who share a loony bin ward with Orestes, although it's not clear in this production) conjure up familiar 20th Century psychopaths mouthing their own words. Via telephone, Electra consults Farley, a latter day oracle (that is to say, astrologer), who talks about the position of the planets (many of which, as we know, are named for the gods); later, Farley will lecture Orestes about taking dramatic actions during moon wobbles. When Tyndareus arrives demanding justice and offering no mercy for his daughter's death, it is a rant about political correctness. "And yet," he concludes, "one can commit murder and find the words to justify it." At play's end, Beckerman has Apollo speak to the assembled group in the voice of a certain person -- I'll leave it as a surprise -- that is bitingly and hysterically on point.
Mee freely mixes the current with the antique, buttressing rather than beating on his central argument. Beckerman doesn't interfere with the intended flow per se, but her elegantly nondescript staging sometimes makes the juxtapositions hard to recognize, at least at first. Much of Mee's text -- both old and new -- is presented directly to the audience by cast members, on a number of occasions after picking up microphones into which they speak.
The cast consists of three strong "regulars" from Beckerman's company. We've seen and enjoyed all of them before, and they've never been better. The extent to which their collective energy coalesces makes a powerful argument for this sort of long-term collaboration among like-minded folk. Ebling is a riveting stage presence, both in Electra's fiercest, darkest moments and in Helen's most superficial ones. Saidy's Orestes, like his Hamlet a couple of season's ago, is compelling, gruesomely evoking the character's suffering (notwithstanding Mee's non-psychological formulation). He also does fine when he shifts into the multi-personality called John. But this time it is Conklin who is most impressive, covering a broad terrain in a handful of roles requiring him to shift seamlessly from one to another and back again. The combination of resources he calls up -- gesturally, physically and vocally -- is astounding.
The Mee/Beckerman admixture often reminds one of The Wooster Group -- something I've never really sensed in Beckerman's work previously. This is not to suggest derivativeness, but rather a fresh, imaginative and intelligent new adventure. Don't miss it. LINKS TO OTHER eb&c PRODUCTIONS