Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Oresteia (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Way back when I was getting my degree in Theatre Arts at the University of West Florida, the first reading assignment in Theatre History class was The Oresteia. This marks the only complete trilogy to have survived from Ancient Greek Theatre (which traditionally told stories of their myths and legends in that format). It tells of one royal family's bloody aftermath in the wake of the Trojan War--most specifically, the fate (remember that work, it comes up a lot) of King Agamemnon and his son Orestes.

It makes for a tricky work, because Ancient Greece held a very different world view than our own--different yet in some ways familiar. For example, they were pantheists with a multitude of gods, a fact I've seen audiences find very hard to grasp. More, the Greek Gods were only partially individuals in the way we humans see ourselves. They were also forces of nature, and to violate those forces was to risk much--not because the gods were cruel or petty (although they could be) but because they literally embodied things like law, the oceans, physical love, the conscious mind, etc. Thus they tended to see what we would call "sin" in very legalistic terms, but also with said laws being part of nature itself.

Credit: ZJU
What director/adaptor Cyle Conley has done here was boil the entire trilogy into an hour--and let us note up front, successfully. A tale of royal revenge, it echoes what many regard as the greatest achievement in English theatre that way, namely Shakespeare's Hamlet. Instead of focusing upon the question of whether revenge even makes any sense, The Oresteia (or "The Orestes Plays") presumes the central character deserves his revenge. Orestes' mother murdered his father the King. She did so out of revenge for his sacrificing her daughter Iphegenia to the gods in order that the Greek ships might sail to war. When he arrives back from the war, victorious, she seemingly welcomed him with open arms. In fact, she has never ever forgiven him for slaughtering their child.

Interestingly, neither of King Agamemnon's other children--Orestes and his sister Electra--mention their murdered sister. Not even once. But then, the Greeks didn't quite regard women as full human beings. Like I said, they seem terribly familiar in some way. Agamemnon brings home the Trojan Princess Cassandra as a slave and concubine.  Cassandra refused the advances of the god Apollo, after he had given her the gift of prophecy. In revenge for her refusal, he cursed her to none would believe her visions of the future. In an added cruel touch, she herself knows her words will go unheeded.  Warning Agamemnon or trying to save herself will not work. Cannot work. Such is fate.

Credit: ZJU
From this brew of character and passions, a hideous irony emerges. Orestes has been wronged, his father murdered. Apollo himself (remember his treatment of Cassandra) encourages the young Prince to kill the perpetrator. But to kill one's own mother is a special kind of crime, one that summons the ancient and terrible Furies--creatures from before the Gods, who seek out their own cosmic revenge against parent murderers and traitors among others. Not all crimes, of course. Only those deemed the worst of the worst--and spilling one's own blood qualifies in their inhuman eyes, a crime for which death is far too easy a punishment...

What startles is how well this entire epic fit into a mere hour! More, the plot and characters ended up presented with rather effective modernity. A chorus is reduced to one narrator (Rosalie Alspah) who quite self-consiously steps into the shoes of a goddess for the play's climax. William Walker plays the title character, neatly avoiding the trap of emoting all those passion-driven lines and instead spoke to people as a man who simply feels that much. Jessie Brown (who, like most of the cast, played multiple roles) in particular shone, not least because all three of her characters could have been slight variations on the same theme, yet ended up each a very individual expression of unhappiness and rage. In fact the entire cast did what must be called a good job, including Sarah Metcalf as both Queen Clytemnestra as well as one of the Furies, Jordan Klomp as her lover as well as yet another Fury (he was much better in the latter) and Michael J. Marchak as both King Agamemnon as well as the powerful, relentless god Apollo.

One more performance awaits of this Oresteia, at ZJU 4850 Lankershim Blvd (just south of the NoHo sign and north of Camarillo), North Hollywood CA 91601. Tickets are $15.

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