In the introduction to her translation of four plays by Euripides, the poet and classicist Anne Carson provides a brief explanation of catharsis: “Watching unpleasant stories about other people lost in grief and rage is good for you,” she writes. “[It] may cleanse you of your own darkness.” Watching Aiskhylos’ Agamemnon and Sophokles’ Elektra—the first two plays in Classic Stage Company’s An Oresteia, both in versions by Carson (who prefers more Attic spellings)—I was much moved to consider cleansing and darkness, if not grief and rage. How, I wondered, will they ever get all that blood and dirt out of those costumes? Imagine their laundry bills!
Unfortunately, An Oresteia‘s first two plays, both directed by Brian Kulick and Gisela Cardenas, provide ample opportunity for the mind to wander toward such sanitary concerns. On Riccardo Hernandez’s unsightly set (a wall of blood-stained plywood), all the expected tragic action takes place—Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War; his wife, Klytaimestra, slaughters him; their daughter, Elektra, plots revenge; their son, Orestes, exacts it. Blood flows and women wail. But none of it seems to matter much.
The plays fall prey to staging accidents and strange directorial choices: Doors won’t open or won’t stay closed; lanterns don’t descend; actresses trip on their dresses. The chorus tears through the text as they wearily accomplish stage business. The principal actors inhabit different genres: Stephanie Roth Haberle plays Klytaimestra as a melodramatic adventuress; Stephen Mellor’s Agamemnon seems a refugee from a more avant-garde production; and Annika Boras’s Elektra and Mickey Solis’s Orestes prefer a more naturalistic approach.
Though she’s a remarkable writer, Carson shoulders some of the blame. Aiskhylos is credited with inventing a regal, austere style and Sophokles with sweetening it, but Carson favors the colloquial over the magisterial. She does not send out phrases that, as Virginia Woolf said of Aiskhylos’, “stalk eyeless and majestic through the scene.” Instead, Carson supplies lines such as Agamemnon’s declaration, “If I keep this rule, I’ll be OK”; Klytaimestra’s confession, “Well, that’s a good point”; and the chorus’s admission, “Some of this, I don’t get.” Carson’s Sophokles is no more refined, but somewhat punchier, as when Elektra yells at her mother, “You’re some sort of punishment cage locked around my life.” The language is intimate and playable, but too flip for tragedy.
The three plays that form An Oresteia run in repertory. While impassioned fans of Carson or the Greeks may wish to attend the entire cycle, mere theater lovers might settle for seeing only the final show, Euripides’ Orestes, directed by Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson of Big Dance Theater. While Aiskhylos’ Agamemnon is thoroughly known and Sophokles’ Elektra doesn’t depart from the familiar myth, this Orestes is another matter entirely. It’s antic instead of stately, bizarre in its characterizations and plotting. (Kidnapping! Suicides! A vanishing Helen of Troy!) Consequently, Lazar, Parson, and Carson, too, seem to have allowed themselves much greater license.
In this intensely playful production, actors attired in tunics and tarbooshes sing, dance, and accompany themselves on a ukulele. They deliver their lines into microphones loosely concealed in palm fronds. Orestes, like the plays before it, doesn’t smack of tragedy—but it isn’t meant to. In fact, Euripides supplies the sort of miraculous comic ending for which he was much castigated in his day: Apollo (Eric Dyer swinging from a trapeze) arrives to sort out all the deaths and marriages. A baffled chorus member announces, “The weirdness goes on. It just goes on.” Yes, it does. Delightfully.