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Excess of Evil

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 Electra begins, 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.

 

Macbeth is, of course, an actor’s play, because Shakespeare is where crime gets personal. It’s also where murder and treason become less excusable, because by the time of the Renaissance, secular reason had banished the superstitious shadows that cloaked the felonies of mortals with Olympian virtue — evil was becoming banal. The Thane of Cawdor murders and murders again because of “vaulting ambition,” not because some oracle suggested it might be the right thing to do. And when he says, “I have almost forgot the taste of fears,” he’s referring as much to the vestigial constraints of religion and the terror of damnation as to the more immediate dangers of swordplay. Macbeth may still grapple with the notion of unavoidable destiny, raised when the three witches goad and flatter him with omens of success, and he may feel himself to be a prisoner of fate, but there’s not a jury in Elizabethan England that would buy such a defense.

In the last of Shakespeare’s greater tragedies, we also discover the ancestor of all black widows, Lady Macbeth. When she shores up her husband’s faltering nerve before the slaying of King Duncan, she echoes Electra’s insistence that Clytemnestra must die; but there are just as many ripples in Lady M’s speech radiating toward a future when couples conspire on telephones and in cocktail lounges to kill husbands, bosses or wives in the name of love or double-indemnity insurance policies. This unholy pair of Scots, as murderous as they are, still look out hopefully from the defense table searching for an empathetic audience-jury.

Circus Theatricals’ production of Macbeth, directed by Casey Biggs at the Odyssey Theater, looks the way a Scottish play should — dark, sleek and sculpted by deceptively reductive technical skill. Set designer Diane Marie Taylor hangs a large burnished orb over the action, a bloodied sun-moon symbol

that reflects each scene’s mood while serving as a projection screen for lighting designer Timothy Kiley’s flickering videos. Finally, James Haycock costumes the characters in black leather and dark fabrics, lending the proceedings a timeless- contemporary feel.

The troupe is a serious group, and Macbeth is not something you mount because you happen to have a lot of leather coats lying around. For all that, though, we never quite understand why the company is putting on this play at this time. Although the evening rolls along swiftly on Taylor’s flying platforms, there seems no urgency to the action. Even the reliable Jack Stehlin seems a little off his game as Macbeth (we neither feel that he’s a warrior nor believe that he’s a calculating climber), and Libby West is merely credible as his wife. Of the ensemble players, only Fintan McKeown fiercely owns his role, as Macduff, and, for that matter, could probably play any of the evening’s male parts well.

In the end, what’s missing is an underlying theory behind this Macbeth. The murderous couple are neither archvillains nor victims of their own delusions, nor a pair of vapid Ceausescus. A Noise Within’s 2002 production of the same play captured both the blood and the political guts of this too-human story, but something is missing in Biggs’ production. Maybe it’s a heart — or rather, the emptiness that lies at the heart of all murder.

ELECTRA | By EURIPIDES | At A NOISE WITHIN, 234 S. Brand Ave., Glendale | Through May 15 | (818) 240-0910, Ext. 1

MACBETH | By WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE | CIRCUS THEATRICALS at the ODYSSEY THEATER, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Through April 18 | (310) 477-2055