Though Bible stories have been a source of movie blockbusters, from The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, almost the only time they show up in theater is, not surprisingly, at Christmas, when Scrooge and company remind us that Good Deeds will get us into heaven. There are others: The Mysteries, composed of Bible stories,made the rounds a few years ago (locally at Actors’ Gang); earlier this year, Al Pacino brought Oscar Wilde’s Greek-tinged New Testament tragedy Salome back from the dead to the Brentwood; and, of course, Val Kilmer tried his luck on the boards as a singing Moses in 2004 at the Kodak Theater.
Bible stories contain a template for good and evil doing battle with each other that we find entrenched in both our pop mythology and our foreign-policy statements. In our theater, however, many more ancient Greek legends than Bible stories have basked in the stage light, with characters who are not either good or evil, but sinful and virtuous at the same time: proud and angry, smart and blind, always screwing up. Their stories are not uplifting; they won’t last on Broadway or get you into heaven if you follow their edicts. When their heroes get revenge, it doesn’t make anybody but them feel any better, and that’s short-lived. Because if you kill somebody, for “justice,” “democracy,” “honor” or whatever Homeric principle the situation calls for, you don’t just ride into the sunset victorious. Rather, you have just cursed yourself. This is a version of the way things work that’s been slowly dawning on us in the wake of the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Aeschylus’ The Oresteia trilogy is simply a multigenerational cycle of hubris, hurt and violent revenge, as pointed and pointless as all the blood being spilled from Sudan to the West Bank to the Sunni Triangle.
The existentialism of Greek tragedy flies in the face of what used to be called American optimism, which is why it’s so curious that our theater has embraced it with such vigor. The plays of our theater’s legends, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and August Wilson, are sculpted from the clay of Greek tragedy. Whenever we start another war, along come stage productions of Lysistrata, The Persians and The Trojan Women. We’ve seen Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and their lovely children, Electra and Orestes, strutting in local theaters countless times in the last several years: from the entire Oresteia trilogy (Actors’ Gang); Ruth Margraff’s The Electra Fugues (Bottom’s Dream); Katharine Noon’s Agamemnon variation, Clyt at Home (Ghost Road/Theater of Note); Luis Alfaro’s Electra update, Electricidad (Mark Taper Forum); plus The Suppliants in Charles L. Mee’s Big Love (Pacific Resident Theater). (Off-Broadway, Kate Burton just opened in Theresa Rebeck’s Agamemnon update, The Water’s Edge, while locally, Ghost Road theater company is developing a new adaptation of The Furies. And so on.)
In Mee’s faithful adaptation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon,currently at Santa Monica’s City Garage, the title character, a military commander played by Troy Dunn with lucidity and a refreshing lack of bombast, arrives with the following speech:
“I bring a conqueror’s greeting to my home. We brought a just revenge to Troy.
“For the Trojans’ rape of Helen, we have made the city pay a woman’s price. We have ground that city’s bones; we have turned its walls to dust. And even now smoke still rises to mark that great city’s fall. Come face to face with what it is to be a man.”
Agamemnon had reason to sack Troy. His brother’s wife, Helen, had been “abducted” to Troy by Paris. Something had to be done. You can’t liberate a captive queen without an act of war. Half a war will bring defeat. It has to be the whole bloody thing, and Mee’s adaptation is about the whole bloody thing. Unlike the one-liner posturings of Mee’s very popular Big Love — ostensibly about the mysteries of human attraction but actually piffle — Agamemnon unfolds through extended and beautiful recitatives about war and its consequences that Frederique Michel stages as crisply and confidently as a choreographed poem.
The haunting, central question is whether Agamemnon really needed to sacrifice his and Clytemnestra’s daughter to the gods for favorable sea winds. Was victory so imperative that he would murder their child to assure it? “When men go to war, they invade their own family first, they murder first what’s best in them,” the chorus points out, allegorically; and later, a more direct commentary: “The power of a public man is measured by how much blood and treasure he has the authority to waste.”
And so Agamemnon returns home after a decade not only cursed by war and haunted by its ghosts, but also cursed by his own wife.
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Playwright-historian Mee, hampered by polio as a young man, asks in his stage directions that the chorus all be maimed. Director Michel brings them to Mycenae as decapitated heads — one attached to the stem of a boat, like a figurehead. That rope-strewn boat dominates center stage in Charles Duncombe’s gorgeous production design. There’s a wire cage, stage left, holding Agamemnon’s war prize, Cassandra (Ilana Turner). Stage right contains what’s become a fixture for numerous productions here, a bathtub — a matrix of sex and death — where Clytemnestra (Marie Françoise Theodore) lounges naked with her lover, Aegisthus (Justin Davanzo). The excellent ensemble gently yet authoritatively renders the often violent poem — about the interconnectedness of war to storytelling, to memory and to history — while shifting images of ancient sculptures appear on screens, sometimes against the sound of a glorious chorale by Arvo Pärt. With the play’s references to children in war zones being grabbed from their beds and being ripped in two like a cloth or having their heads bashed against posts, or of an ape hung upside down and buried alive, Michel mercifully refrains from having her actors stomp in unison to accentuate a point — a device that’s become one of her signatures. The flames and thunderbolts are in the words, which Michel’s staging frames with a ravishing sensuality and elegance that’s both human and religious, like a vista of ancient Greece that keeps drawing back, until you see shorelines and oceans and, eventually, the entire world turning, slowly, in circles.
Cornerstone Theater Company presented Demeter in the City, which closed last weekend at REDCAT. Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s play, with songs (by Ruhl, David Markowitz and director Shishir Kurup), riffs on the Greek Demeter myth by modernizing it and setting it in Los Angeles. Demeter, the goddess of fertility and agriculture, suffered such grief when Hades snatched her daughter, Persephone, to be queen of the underworld, that she drowned Thebes in her tears and shut down the food supply until Uncle Zeus interceded, resulting in a time-sharing plan for Persephone. And this explains the seasons — why, when Persephone is with Hades in winter, trees lose their leaves and fields lie fallow; in summer, with mother and daughter together, life on Earth pulses again with abundant food and flowing wine.
Ruhl turns Demeter (Bahni Turpin) into a single mom from Compton whose infant gets snatched away by Child Services after needles are found in the apartment. Turpin’s doe eyes, understated rage and ongoing perplexity revealed a penetrating and moving study in grief. Accompanied by 10 pop songs, set to Jennifer Li’s winking choreography, the show bounced from Demeter’s despondency to kangaroo courts headed by the wonderful Peter Howard as Judge, a comedic romp through child-custody protocol, and then, in Act 2, Persephone’s (Sadé Moore) agitprop debunking of a Young Republican’s (Sonny Valicenti) devil logic. Ruhl and director Shishir Kurup are smart enough to give each side its due, and are humble enough to avoid easy answers, but that doesn’t necessarily add up to wisdom. The problem starts with a myth about seasons set in a city that, by the play’s own admission, doesn’t have any. After the show gets torn between a righteous view of the world and a paradoxical one, the original myth is left in shards. Kurup’s production, however, was so goodhearted, it’s difficult to rail against it.?
AGAMEMNON | By CHARLES L. MEE | Presented by CITY GARAGE, 1340½ Fourth St. (west alley), Santa Monica | Through July 23 | (310) 319-9939