A lifetime devoted to classical theatre; thirty-two years at the helm of the Shakespeare Theatre Co.; founding faculty member of The Julliard School’s Drama Division; mentor and friend to actors from London to New York, to L.A.; honored by every means through which the world acknowledges theatre greatness – Michael Kahn is making his final bow and has chosen one last theme with which to close his career. He chose “justice.”
In keeping with his scholarly passion for the classics, not to mention an ambition that makes all visions possible, Mr. Kahn turned to the ancient Greek dramatist, Aeschylus, and his tragic trilogy, “The Oresteia.”
We no longer worship Dionysus, and not since Anytime, BCE have crowds sat outdoors for up to twelve hours watching men in masks reenact ancient stories. Their idea of entertainment was a mite different from ours, but at heart, people still want tension and conflict in a tale that matters. We want art that tells us the truth. We want to be moved.
Playwright Ellen McLaughlin, who has considerable experience interpreting the classics, was tasked with remaking the story of Agamemnon and the cursed House of Atreus palatable to modern audiences. We know the original took an entire day to perform because it’s the only
Greek trilogy that still exists in its entirety. Now, without losing the central problem and characters, “The Oresteia” is an accessible three acts in just over two hours.
Clytemnestra, tormented wife and mother, contemplates the ten years since Agamemnon left for the Trojan war full of righteous rage over the wrong done his brother, Menelaus. In flashback, the reason for her bad dreams and obsession over “cleaning house” emerges. The gods, responding to a previous curse, wouldn’t send him a sailing wind. To appease them, he murdered his daughter, the young Iphigenia (Simone Warren).
Kelley Curran brings an icy humor to Clytemnestra, a woman whose resolve to murder her husband and avenge the death of her child has had a chance to cool and harden. There is no one to speak against her plan. What would have once been the traditional Greek Chorus now lives in the gardener, housekeeper, citizens, and peasants who see and comment as an ensemble, but have little influence.
The curse hanging over the House of Atreus didn’t begin with Iphigenia’s death and won’t end with Agamemnon’s. Ever the conquering warrior, Agamemnon (Kelcey Watson) returns, bringing with him one of the spoils of war – the Trojan princess, Cassandra, (Zoe Sophia Garcia) forever cursed to prophecy accurately but not be believed. It’s no strain on Clytemnestra’s wrath to dispense with Cassandra as well as her husband.
Now who will avenge the death of Agamemnon? Enter his grown children, Electra (Rad Pereira) and Orestes (Josiah Bania) who, with the help of their father’s ghost, will send their own mother to her reward. The cycle of violence and revenge, begun in the shadowy mists of human history, appears to have no end. It is only in the last segment, what Aeschylus called “The Eumenides”, that a new possibility emerges: Trial by jury.
Originally, Orestes was driven by the Furies to Athens where Athena and Apollo presided over a game-changing trial between the gods and the Furies. That notion of higher impulses versus revenge survives in this version, but it is members of the chorus who do most of the testifying. The choice is still between more blood, or blood washed away.
In spite of the profound conflict at the heart of the play, there is a certain formality to the deliveries, as if English can never quite free itself from the image of temples and columned figures. Dialogue is less conversation and more monologues delivered at one another. And because the darkness of the theme is a given from the outset, there is little variation, but for the occasional injections of humor, like stray punctuation, that move the needle from a settled point.
A few exceptions erupt, such as Agamemnon’s buffeting by the gods, or Orestes’ impassioned despair at the fateful web he has been drawn into. Clytemnestra, too, breaks her own cool reserve, but only once – and at the point of a knife. And Cassandra, in her brief role, receives the inevitable bad news that no one will believe from gods that no one can see.
Those invisible gods are among the most interesting points of the play, for they make their opinions known, suddenly and mercilessly.
Susan Hilferty’s scene design centers on one enormous rectangular house – or is it a tomb? – painted in streaked red and huddled close under tall, foreboding cliffs. Her costumes, too, are simplified; earthy, functional wear for the “chorus” and Greek-inspired lines for the aristocrats, a.k.a. “the murderers.” If delivery doesn’t always pack the punch that one would like, Cricket Myers’ sound design does, with themes and undertones that stretch the nerves tight.
Mr. Khan chose, not surprisingly, an enormous project for his denouement and delivers it with thoughtfulness and candor. In his own words, the fundamental problem is: “By what means can we put an end to the terrible cycle of violence and retribution?” A question for all times, especially present times. “We may never resolve this question…but I do know that it starts in recognizing our own collective humanity.”
Thank you, Michael Kahn, for everything.
WANT TO GO?
What: “The Oresteia” Adapted from the trilogy by Aeschylus
Where: Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW, Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 547-1122 or visit ShakespeareTheatre.org.
Playing through June 2