By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Photo by Craig Schwartz|
The House of Atreus is one of the most famous families in mythology. It was an ill-fated house.
—Edith Hamilton, Mythology
That was how I came to this House of Death you’ve been reading about in the papers.
—James M. Cain, Double Indemnity
From film noir to slasher novels, modern crime fiction owes a blood debt to classical theater for its portraiture of evil — and our conflicted view of innocence. Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories provide veritable flow charts of homicidal motivation, and more than a bit of admiration for the perps, the most brutal of whom have alibis Johnnie Cochran would covet. And, for pure entertainment, what’s not to like about the Greeks, in whose tragedies we can glimpse the bones of Western drama and the sinews of Occidental justice? Their ancient fables bristle with modern parallels yet are unspotted by messy politics (no awkward anti-Semitic passages here!) and, since they were originally performed with all-male casts, easily lend themselves to camp or controversy.
Director Sabin Epstein’s version of Euripides’ Electra at A Noise Within goes the stag route, though hardly for laughs. It continues the chronicle of the cursed Atreus family, which Cassandra, before her death, had called “a house that hates the gods.”
Ten years after King Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, to put winds in the sails of the Trojan War, he returned to Argos and mortal retribution from his wife, Queen Clytemnestra. When Electrabegins, we meet the queen’s two remaining children after they have spent years of banishment after Agamemnon’s murder. Electra (Donald Sage Mackay) toils in the fields as the still-virginal wife of an impoverished nobleman (Richard Soto). She crosses paths with her long-lost brother, Orestes (Stephen Rockwell), who has been guided by Apollo to her with instructions to kill Clytemnestra (Francois Giroday) and her lover-accomplice, Aegisthus, and so avenge the king’s murder. The reunited siblings eagerly — lustily — carry out the orders but are overcome with grief and fear when they realize the enormity of their matricidal deed.
Epstein’s production, based on Elizabeth Seydel Morgan’s translation, uses men in all of Euripides’ roles but not, apparently, to strictly imitate the earliest stagings of Greek tragedy. His characters do not wear masks, and there is no attempt to effeminize Electra and Clytemnestra — indeed, several of the actors in female roles sport facial hair. Too, some of Yevgenia Nayberg’s ornate, corseted costumes suggest a medieval Peru of the mind more than Aegean simplicity. In fact, a stylistic tension exists between the lyrical and the austere in this 75-minute telling, unfolding, as it does, upon a stark, raked stage splotched with blood and menaced by hovering poles that could be giant I Ching sticks or just the gods’ scorecard pencils.
What Epstein and his cast do best is convey the almost vertiginous wave of guilt that brother and sister experience in the aftermath of a butchery they had so giddily planned — a guilt that we in the audience palpably feel. Partly it’s the siblings’ realization that, while Clytemnestra may have been a murderous whore, she was still Mom. It’s also partly their dawning apprehension of how all this may play upstairs — the Greeks keenly felt that their actions in life were being performed before an amphitheater of gods. This leads, at play’s end, to the anguished questioning of Apollo’s edict and the Catch-22 dilemma it placed before Orestes and Electra. Could the gods be fallible? If so, would following a flawed command place the mortal in jeopardy? If a defendant claims “the gods made me do it,” is that an insanity plea or a religious boast?
Here we find the earliest admissions in Western thought that personal conscience may trump the dubious orders of higher authorities and that there might be more to justice than divine imperatives. Well, almost, because after Aegisthus’ and Clytemnestra’s murders, a deus ex machina reveals to Orestes and Electra, among other things, that while their mother got what she deserved, her slaying was not a righteous act. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It’s not too much to say that stirring in both Morgan’s translation and Epstein’s staging are the future doubts of Hamlet and — as the avenging community comes to replace the revenging son — the end of legal barbarism.
Greek theater began as religious ceremony, and so, like most Athenian tragedies, to put it mildly, Electra is not an actor’s play. (Although Giroday makes an impression as an almost Wildean queen.) At A Noise Within, it takes us a few moments to re-focus our gender expectations, but even then I’m still not sure why Epstein uses an all-male cast. It’s not that it doesn’t work, but we leave unable to say little more than that the conceit
doesn’t not work. Where Epstein goes wrong is adding to Euripides’ mix the character of a little Girl (Alexandra De Liso Smith). She comes out to play with some marionettes, and the chorus has some physical interaction with her during their speeches. The Girl’s presence, however, doesn’t add anything to the evening except that it plays cute — and cute was never the Greeks’ strong suit.