Review: ‘The Oresteia’ by Shakespeare Theatre Company

Enough to drive one mad with joy...

To theater historians, dramaturgs, and lovers of all things Greek, the promise of a production of Aeschylus’ The Oresteia is enough to drive one mad with joy. To begin with, of all the Greek plays that have survived, The Oresteia is the only one in which the entire trilogy exists. The three plays (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides), which won first place in The Dionysia festival in 458 B.C., are in large part the basis for our knowledge of Greek tragedy. So for months, theatergoers in Washington have been looking forward to the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new adaptation of The Oresteia, written by Ellen McLaughlin and directed by Michael Kahn.

Simone Warren as Iphigenia, Kelley Curran as Clytemnestra and Kelcey Watson as Agamemnon in 'The Oresteia.' Photo by Scott Suchman.
Simone Warren as Iphigenia, Kelley Curran as Clytemnestra and Kelcey Watson as Agamemnon in ‘The Oresteia.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

Now that it has opened, it is obvious that the McLaughlin/Kahn collaboration does not disappoint. First, in terms of its shape, this Oresteia does the work of the original. McLaughlin does not divide her adaptation into three obvious parts with two intermissions, but the divisions are there, subtly. In the first part, McLaughlin tells the story of King Agamemnon (Kelcey Watson) returning home from the Trojan War after an absence of ten years, bringing with him his slave and concubine, Cassandra (Zoë Sophia Garcia).

His wife, Clytemnestra (Kelley Curran) is waiting for him, angry at his long absence and still furious at the way, ten years earlier, he sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, when instructed to do so by a god, in order to make the winds blow the ships to Troy. McLaughlin takes a brief detour into familial history and introduces Iphigenia (Simone Warren), to intensify the reason for Clytemnestra’s rage. After Agamemnon takes the child offstage and slits her throat, time switches back to the present and Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon (again offstage) in payback for Iphigenia’s sacrifice.

In terms of her language, McLaughlin invents a new voice for the Chorus, which is a huge part of Greek drama, often representing the community, the elders, or the voice of conventionality. McLaughlin cleverly makes her Chorus servants in Agamemnon’s household. They are ever-present; they hear and see everything and react in unison with similar hand gestures or body movement. They speak a colloquial, modern-day speech which delivers some philosophical as well as some funny attitudes to the wretched family of the House of Atreus.

The second portion of McLaughlin’s story begins by reflecting the story of The Libation Bearers. Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s son, Orestes (Josiah Bania), comes home and recounts the mental agony he has suffered because of Clytemnestra. He murders her in retaliation for her murder of Agamemnon. The stage goes dark for a minute before the third portion of this production, representing The Eumenides, points the way from a revenge-oriented society to a justice-based society. Instead of more killing, Orestes is put on trial for his murder of  Clytemnestra. The Chorus becomes the body that sits in judgment of him.

Watson plays Agamemnon as a proud, strong ruler who doesn’t recognize that he has done any harm to the people around him. Watson’s interpretation is perfect: his king is blind, concerned only with winning wars. Curran’s Clytemnestra is equally fine. When she welcomes home her warrior, she reveals none of the hate in her heart. She is a woman on a murderous mission as she rolls out a crimson carpet for Agamemnon to tread on as he strides back into his castle.

Corey Allen, Kati Brazda, Patrena Murray, Helen Carrey, Jonathan Louis Dent, Sophia Skiles, Alvin Keith, and Franchelle Stewart Dorn as members of the Chorus, 'The Oresteia.' Photograph by Scott Suchman.
Corey Allen, Kati Brazda, Patrena Murray, Helen Carey, Jonathan Louis Dent, Sophia Skiles, Alvin Keith, and Franchelle Stewart Dorn as members of the Chorus, ‘The Oresteia.’ Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Bania as Orestes is one of the strongest cast members, in a difficult role that calls for him to rant, rave, and have fits. Bania beautifully conveys the frustration he feels at not being able to control his emotions: Is he mad? Is he inspired by Apollo? One of the most moving scenes of this Oresteia comes near the end when Bania and Rad Pereira as his sister, Electra, comfort one another.

Although this Oresteia is full of blood and fury, there are entertaining moments. For instance, the interplay between Clytemnestra and Cassandra, who either doesn’t want to speak or cannot speak Greek. Garcia cowers and shies away from the queen. Eventually, Clytemnestra leaves her to the Chorus, who hound her into the palace.

Director Michael Kahn keeps the play moving quickly, emphasizing its humor and allowing each of its participants – including the Chorus – a chance to voice his or her views on violence, revenge, or forgiveness.  

A great deal of the success of this Oresteia depends on its set, designed by Susan Hilferty, who also designed the costumes. All the action takes place in front of the palace of Agamemnon, which sits on what looks like the interior rim of a volcano. The palace is reddish/black with two upper windows and a door, all dark metal. The stage floor looks like cooled, blackened lava. The lighting design by Jennifer Tipton creates a blue, star-filled night for the beginning of the play. Later, the sky becomes gray.

For those who consider revenge an outmoded notion, consider the countless television series from America to Turkey to Mexico that revolve around revenge. The original Oresteia was a production about how easily society fractures and how it must adapt to allow people to survive with one another. The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Oresteia is a consummate illustration of society’s ongoing fractures and efforts at adaptation.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.

The Oresteia plays through June 2, 2019, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122 or go online.

Members of the Chorus are played by: Corey Allen, Kati Brazda, Helen Carey, Jonathan Louis Dent, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Alvin Keith, Patrena Murray, Sophia Skiles