The Ex Factor

Note to Greek husbands: Killing child not best idea

Clytemnestra, the vengeful wife of Agamemnon, has enlisted many of the theater's great grande dames in her deadly service. Kim Hunter, Florence Stanley, Irene Worth, Gloria Foster, Diana Rigg, Claire Bloom, and Fiona Shaw have all played the queen—a scorned woman whose consuming anger over the murder of her daughter compels her to seek revenge on the perpetrator, her unfaithful husband.

For anyone fortunate enough to catch the Persona Theater Company's current production of Clytemnestra's Tears at La MaMa, the temptation will be great to rank the Greek actress Themis Bazaka among that pantheon of thespians. Virtually unknown in this country, Bazaka delivers a performance of jolting power and tear-streaked pathos. It's a brave, brilliant spectacle, a portrait of rage as it shades irreversibly into madness.

An hour-long monologue performed in Greek with English surtitles, Clytemnestra's Tears amounts to a sustained wail of grief. The play, written by Avra Sidiropoulou, begins with Clytemnestra floating amid a sea of memories and dreams. "I once had a daughter called Iphigenia/Whom the gods snatched away from my breasts," she tells the audience. The rest of Clytemnestra's sad story emerges fitfully from the dense, highly subjective verse. This feels like an unreliable account of an unstable woman hopelessly ensnared in her poisonous ruminations.

Hello pantheon: Themis Bazaka
photo: Persona Theatre Company
Hello pantheon: Themis Bazaka

The staging, also by the playwright, mixes avant-garde styling (a dripping-water soundtrack; quasi-abstract decor) with the stentorian formalism of a classical production. The result is appropriately timeless and surprisingly cohesive. "Oblivion./Time is expanded," intones Clytemnestra, describing the isolation that the gods have inflicted on her. Channeling antiquity through a postmodern lens, the play would make ideal viewing in an open-space setting, like the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum or the Fleischman Classic Theater at the Getty Villa.

Bazaka commands the stage with frightening intensity throughout, somehow managing to overcome the surtitles' clumsy translations and reach the audience through what can only be described as telepathic willpower. Wearing a complicated dress that suggests a giant hornet crossed with an 18th-century courtesan, she thrashes about the stage deploying violent gestures that feel both reckless and incredibly precise. At one point, she enacts Agamemnon's fateful homecoming by unrolling a purple carpet from between her legs. Death and birth thus linked, she begins to disintegrate before our eyes. "My baby's gone . . . My husband's gone, gone now, all gone . . . , " she laments. Raw almost to the point of bloody, Bazaka's performance impacts like an elemental force. Watching her is like witnessing the origins of acting.

 
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