I think I know Greek tragedy‘s dirty little secret — that is, why we still sit through retellings of doomed figures like Medea and Oedipus after all these centuries. It has nothing to do with the gaunt poetry of the texts, the grim majesty of the characters’ lives and deaths, or even the solemn ritual these plays bring to the stage. On the contrary, it‘s partly the opposite of all these things: We are able to take the plots of Aeschylus and others — stories that are a planetary remove from our own time and place — and connect them to the horror of our ho-hum existences more easily than many contemporary dramas that presume to speak directly to us.
Horror is the key word here, but not the grandiose, moral horror that accrues from parricide, incest and cannibalism. No, the kind of horror most of us are likely to experience is decidedly low-level, along the lines of rear-ending someone in a parking lot and understanding that this mortifying event resulted from a chain of petty circumstances that may or may not have been prevented. Perhaps hours ago we ran a red light, which angered the traffic gods, and, paradoxically, gained us the few seconds that also put a car in our path. It’s fate — though we made the choices that got us to the parking lot, deep down we suspect we were cornered into making them.
Clyt at Home: The Clytemnestra Project, now performing at Theater of NOTE, is one of several revisionist adaptations of Greek tragedies that have appeared locally over the last few years. (Some of the more jarring have been the Charles MeeEllen McLaughlin–written Oresteia at Actors‘ Gang and Heiner Muller’s Medea Text at City Garage.) Created in workshop by Katharine Noon and Christopher DeWan, with the production‘s ensemble and designers, the show injects broad comedy into Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra (the titular character has a scene in which she attempts suicide by a collection of implements, including a staple gun) and unapologetically throws out the poet‘s text (and with it, Cassandra) in order to recast the story completely in the present world of laptops, video and cell phones. (Characters don’t merely use these appliances, they refer to them as well.) Its main appeal, however, is its focusing the story‘s tragedy through the queen of Mycenae’s eyes. (Her murderous plot to kill Agamemnon unfolds like The Postman Always Rings Twice as told by Cora.)
This empathic gambit is essential to experience the full force of Greek tragedy, for if we can‘t see that every character is “right” in his or her feelings and actions, then we never get the horror of their situations — that of people who believed they were doing the correct thing (running the red light to get to work on time) only to be denounced and struck down for it. Clyt at Home involves a stylish but manic queen (Jacqueline Wright) who’s driven over the edge by her husband Agamemnon‘s (Hugo Armstrong) sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia (Rebecca Gray) before he embarks on a kind of Desert Storm war against Troy.
Their surviving children, Electra (Miguel Montalvo) and Orestes (Lynn Odell), seem completely unaffected by their sibling’s demise and long for their father‘s return from Troy. This Ghost Road–NOTE production rides high on the slender shoulders of Wright’s jagged, vulnerable performance as an out-of-control mom living in a land unblessed by the goddess of Prozac. The evening takes some worthy risks, casting the Furies as three cocktail-sipping biddies who are charged with delivering the ashes of Agamemnon‘s fallen soldiers, and abruptly stops when flat-voiced characters sing bewilderingly daft songs. Other choices don’t work so well: Having Electra and Orestes played by actors against gender, as well as having Electra appear older than her mother, may provoke some surprised smiles at first, but quickly come off as hollow affectations.
Even when parts of the show fall flat, however, or when the evening verges on the comically absurd (the wonderfully droll Phil Ward as a putter-swinging Aegisthus), Clyt at Home never turns its back on its source material and the consuming unfairness that smothers its characters. Sometimes you have to get away from Greece to appreciate the Greeks.