By Samuel L. Leiter . . .
Robert Icke’s Oresteia, an adaptation of the only extant ancient Greek tragic trilogy, first produced in 458 BC, has been radically adapted from Aeschylus’ original by the British director into a single three-and-a-half-hour play. It’s now at the remarkable Park Avenue Armory (worth a visit no matter what’s on the bill). It’s a mixed bag of heavy, not always coherent themes—political, feminist, moral, judicial, and psychological—and snazzy theatrical coups playing in repertory with Icke’s controversial but largely well-received modern-dress Hamlet.
Both plays are driven by themes of revenge, each containing a young man whose mother must face her son’s anger for her possible or actual complicity in the murder of her husband and his father. In Shakespeare’s play the son furiously confronts his mother, Gertrude, but doesn’t kill her; in the second play of the Oresteia, The Libation Bearers, Orestes (Luke Treadaway) slays his mom, Klytemnestra (Anastasia Hille), because she slew Agamemnon (Angus Wright), who, in turn, slew their daughter, Iphegenia (Alexis Rae Forlenza at the performance I saw). There’s a whole lot of slaying going on because that’s what blood for blood requires. Which means Orestes must be slain as well, so he’s pursued in the third play, The Eumenides (a.k.a. The Furies), by the titular revenge-seekers, here a single old lady (Marty Cruikshank). The conclusion, as Icke reimagines it, is an interminable—although excellently executed—courtroom trial, overseen by the goddess Athene (Hara Yannas), in which every permutation of justice is discussed.
Icke’s Oresteia is, like Hamlet, played in today’s clothing (designed by Hildegard Bechtel), mostly black and white, with color added via a maroon robe and brighter hues worn by Iphegenia, Cassandra (Ms. Yannas), and Elektra (Tia Bannon). Bare feet are de rigueur. The set also shares with Hamlet Ms. Bechtel’s spare, open stage, with the upper, platformed area separated from downstage by large, sliding glass doors; regardless of the costumes, a classical column or two and large double doors to the palace are there presumably to remind us we’re in ancient Greece. For furnishings, we have only a long, sleek, white table and benches.
Numerous liberties are taken with the text, which uses contemporary language (and a cuss word or two), avoids the chorus, and introduces plot elements from Homer, Sophocles, and Euripides. Confusion often mars the play’s progress. Klytemnestra’s lover, Aegisthus, is barely present, and when he is he’s played by Angus Wright, who mainly portrays Agamemnon, both living and dead. Dreamlike moments suggest that Electra (Imani Jade Powers at the performance I attended), regardless of her obvious presence, is a figment of Orestes’ imagination; he even has a shrink-like Doctor (Kirsty Rider) following him about. And I’m not quite sure what the prophetic Cassandra is doing here, or why—given her bizarre behavior and incomprehensible babble—Klytemnestra accuses her of being Agamemnon’s whore. This Cassandra’s definitely not a chick a rational dude like Wright’s refined Agamemnon would want anywhere near his man cave.
If you remember the first play in the trilogy, Agamemnon, you’ll expect to see the hero return home in victory from the “war” (unspecified) with the prophetic Cassandra, only to be slain in his bath by Klytemnestra. In Icke’s version, however, the play begins with the Iphegenia in Aulis story of Agamemnon’s being urged by Menelaus (Peter Wight) to slay Iphigenia because the “signs” from the gods say that only if he does so will the winds begin blowing so that the Athenians can sail off to war. (What gods are meant is vague, as the seer, Calchas [Michael Abubakar], twice names nearly every god you’ve ever heard of, from Allah to Yahweh, and none seem germane.) The proposed infanticide provides grist for a tortuous debate about the decision between the two generals, and an even more fraught one between Agamemnon and Klytemnestra. What Aeschylus conveys in several lines of his opening choral ode, Icke takes well over an hour to dramatize. It does, however, ignite some undeniably histrionic fireworks.
The familiar Agamemnon narrative isn’t forgotten, however, but now comes around where the second play would be. Many other unexpected twists are given to the work, although its basic elements remain more or less intact within the directorial and dramaturgic tinkering, which sometimes turns Aeschylus’ grand tragedy into a squabbling family drama set around a dining room table. Here, though, neither father nor mother knows best.
Anastasia Hille’s Klytemnestra, an emotional whirlwind with perfect diction, is exceptional; her arc from loving, kindly mother to matriarchal avenger marks her as an actress of the finest cloth. Mr. Wright is much the same as when playing Claudius in Hamlet, magnetically regal, beautifully spoken, and icily cool; he even has a prayer scene that mirrors Claudius’s. Mr. Treadway, a fine Laertes in Hamlet, proves a boring Orestes, speaking throughout with tears in his voice, but Mr. Wight brings to Menelaus the same distinctive presence he gives to Polonius.
I was particularly impressed by the Iphegenia of Ms. Forlenza, a Long Island fourth grader whose authentically posh British accent makes her sound as if she were born in Buckingham Palace. (Elyana Faith Randolph alternates the part and is probably just as good.) She has a dancer’s grace and even carries off a rendition of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” Ms. Forlenza’s beautifully executed death scene, carried out like a clinical treatment in which she must drink from three small paper cups, is the most touching thing in the play.
Icke, aided by Laura Marling’s effectively ominous music, manifests some striking jeux, like having Klytemnestra lug Agamemnon’s bloody body along the floor and down some steps. There’s a powerful bit when an offstage wind blows papers across the stage like Hurricane Sandy. And, at several moments, Icke jolts us with blasts of sound (designed by Tom Gibbons) and sudden lighting changes (designed by Natasha Chivers). He also relies, though, on occasional clichés, like using handheld cameras and having his leads interviewed by a TV journalist, their faces seen on screens placed here and there (video design by Tim Reid).
Aristotle said the aim of a tragedy should be catharsis, the release of one’s feelings of pity and fear. I can’t vouch for the pity and fear, but, after three-and-a-half hours, I was sure happy for the release.
Photos: Joan Marcus