One of the many curses raining down on the House of Atreus stems from a feud between the master of that house and his jealous twin brother, Thyestes, whose belief that Atreus should never have become the ruler of Argos got him banished. Later returning from exile with his children, Thyestes is welcomed home by Atreus with a celebratory feast. Unbeknownst to Thyestes, the main course includes the boiled limbs of Thyestes’ children. This would seem an excessive form of sibling rivalry by anybody’s standard, but Aeschylus’ three plays of the Oresteia — written about 2,500 years ago — are studies in the motives and processes by which we eat our young, whether on a silver platter or by launching a thousand ships into unimagined tempests.
You can imagine how Thyestes cursed when he figured out how he’d been tricked. Those curses were overheard by the gods, who took them seriously enough to condemn the House of Atreus to generations of misery. If that house weren’t a version of our house, if those betrayals and wars weren’t our betrayals and our wars, plays like Agamemnon, Electra, The Furies and so many other extant, ancient texts wouldn’t be staged half as often as they are, in all corners of the globe. L.A., too, has proved fertile ground for stage productions depicting the House of Atreus. (L.A.’s Ghost Road Theater Company alone has devoted the better part of a decade to hammering out contemporary adaptations of the Oresteia trilogy.) Meanwhile, at the Getty Villa’s outdoor Greek theater, Stephen Wadsworth’s staging of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, using a translation by Robert Fagles and featuring actors Tyne Daly and Delroy Lindo, plays through September. (Ghost Road has been touring its adaptations from upstate New York to Northern California, and will perform at this same Getty venue in February 2009, with a combination of texts it’s calling Orestes Remembered.)
The words “justice” and “destiny” keep gurgling up in Fagles’ translation, and both the play and this production are at odds trying to fathom the workings of war, and where God (or the gods, in the case of the ancient Greeks) weighs in on the causes of bloodshed and misery. Much later, in liturgical text, Saint Anthony, visiting Hell, asks the Devil, “And what is the purpose of all this?” The devil replies, “There is no purpose.”
That’s largely the view of princess Cassandra (Francesca Faridany), dragged from her home in Troy as a slave and concubine in triumphant General Agamemnon’s (Lindo) war cart back to Argos. With hollow eyes and, as Sophocles described it in Ajax, that blank “thousand-yard stare,” Cassandra glares defiant, wordless — for a while. Agamemnon’s queen, silver-haired Clytemnestra (Daly), welcomes her into the house in a speech saturated with hostile subtext. (She also welcomes home her long-departed husband, and she has an “issue” with him as well.)
The set depicts the front courtyard via the manse’s large earth-rust-colored clay wall. (The program mentions no set designer, though Thomas Lynch receives a credit for being the “scene design consultant.”) Once the royal couple has withdrawn into the house, Faridany’s Cassandra cuts loose with a speech delivered with harrowing conviction and convulsions that mark the one moment where Wadsworth’s formally postured production — costumed by Rachel Myers in color-coordinated togas and wraps — actually springs to life. This isn’t because the other actors don’t deliver with superb enunciation, clarity and obvious concern over the curses that continue to plague their characters and their kingdom. It’s because Wadsworth stages the play with the formality of an opera. The only instruments for the music, however, are the actors themselves, sometimes speaking, sometimes chanting in unison, with crescendos and decrescendos, rendering Fagles’ beautiful, dense translation as a poetical music that grasps with straws of logic for some comprehension of the chasm between justice and revenge.
When Cassandra finally speaks her “aria,” it smashes through the carefully manicured presentation with a dance of death, and prophecies of coming destruction — including her own — that take the production from a debate about Things That Matter into an irrational and surreal explication drawn from the horrors of war. Her speech and its delivery defy all of the argumentation, and its emotional logic, which has come before. It’s a portrait of madness that is the essence of the world, as though Cassandra alone met with the devil, who told her, “There is no purpose.”
If there is no purpose, there is no justice. If there is no justice, the pillars of civilization have been built on quicksand.
The sounds of a neighbor’s radio from a nearby hillside wafted over the amphitheater on Wednesday night as Daly, Lindo and ensemble worked heroically to render the play intelligible to the opening-night crowd. The actors competed for a good 40 minutes with strains of ethnic pop at decibel levels sometimes louder than the theater event’s own sound effects.
Getty publicist Mike Winder explained that Getty security contacted “the authorities” — that would be the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department — who found the offending neighbor and persuaded him/her/them to turn the thing off.
Twenty-four hours later, at the Geffen Playhouse, pianist-actor Hershey Felder was in the midst of his one-man showcase about Ludwig van You Know Who — Beethoven, as I Knew Him. The act features a small grand piano center stage, at which Felder settles in, sometimes midsoliloquy, to plunk out another in a stream of Ludwig’s greatest hits. Just as Felder was easing into the “Moonlight Sonata,” off went somebody’s cell phone. It’s not just that it went off. It went off at the very moment Felder’s hand was descending onto the piano keys. I saw Felder’s face blanch with frustration and fury, but he continued, undeterred, while that cell phone rang, and rang and rang, competing with the comparatively pristine tones of Beethoven performed live.
So noise wins twice in two nights. Radios have been around for more than 80 years, and it’s true that, like TV, they often unify the society by broadcasting sporting events, political speeches or coverage of major crimes and natural disasters. But like iPhones and iPods, radio and TV are designed to make their money by serving mass markets composed of small groups and individuals, rather than in public forums, like the theater. It’s the technology of individuation, leading to new dimensions of loneliness and solipsism in our culture, particularly among the 20-something generation, a phenomenon widely reported by The New York Times and the Guardian.
Live theater is the attempt, however feeble, to counter such isolation by speaking collectively, communally, primarily through human instruments rather than technological ones. And the war of noise versus sound on the Westside was really an allegory for the ever-louder cultural intrusion of the private arena, and its technologies, upon the public one — actors in a space, just trying to be heard.
AGAMEMNON | By AESCHYLUS | From a translation by ROBERT FAGLES, directed by STEPHEN WADSWORTH | At the GETTY VILLA, 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu | Through September 27 | (310) 440-7300.