Living Myth

Review of The Oresteia at Yale School of Drama

Combining three plays—Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides—into the running time of a single play may be a daunting task, but third-year director Yagil Eliraz’s adaptation of Ted Hughes’ translation of Aeschylus’s The Oresteia presents a cohesive account of the vexed history of the cursed house of Atreus in ancient Argos. The design and staging for the show is nothing short of brilliant, with sets by Fufan Zhang that alternate between a textured wasteland and streamlined modernist spaces and costumes by An-Lin Dauber that display strong classical associations. The only detractions are the oddly off-key comic accouterments for Aegisthus (Sebastian Arboleda) and Apollo (Jonathan Higginbotham), and some of Michael Commendatore’s projections; whereas they generally are superb backdrops, occasionally they take on the quality generally associated with “trip sequences” in films from the Sixties.

Touches such as comedy—such as the clowning in the voting scene during the trial of Orestes (Ricardo Dávila) from Jonathan Majors and Annelise Lawson, who also vamps superbly as Clytemnestra—and cinematic visuals serve to make more contemporary what is otherwise a rather timeless portrayal of an epic play full of fraught drama. Indeed, the show’s dominant tone can be praised for not seeming like a YSD show at all—and that’s said by one who greatly enjoys viewing the trio of thesis shows each season.

In general, thesis shows are showcases for inventive elements in all aspects of the production—the actors, the technical support—and as such can suffer a bit in terms of a comprehensive manner or overall theatrical point. From that standpoint, Eliraz’s directing of his cast—most of whom play in the Chorus as well as taking specific roles—is truly masterful. From the stark opening with Andrew Burnap a lone narrating voice who intones upon a plaintive flute, to the group reactions to the offstage murder of Agememnon (Majors), to the Chorus’s highly effective—and creepy—vocal effects and miming as Furies masked with cow-skull heads, The Oresteia makes pointed use of its cast, making their voices and movements expressive devices that convey a variety of emotions and moods, almost always reacting rather than taking action. And Matthew Suttor’s compositions, worked out with the company, often make the Chorus’s interactions more powerful than the speeches assigned to the named roles.

The Chorus

The Chorus

One of the most striking dramatic moments occurs early in the play. The killing of Iphigenia (Remsen Welsh) as she hangs upside down creates a tableaux of the sacrifice of vulnerable innocence that should be more than enough to condemn Agamemnon who wields the sword for the sake of the war he would wage at Troy. Even so, it’s hard to side entirely with his enraged wife Clytemnestra, who mourns Iphigenia and plots revenge, if only because she’s so clearly marked as a villain. In Aeschylus, the Chorus voices our inability to arrive at ethical clarity in these cases. Which may be a way of saying that, if you really believe a deity involves itself in the acts of mankind, then it may be hard for earthly laws to make a difference to you.

And that’s what Eliraz’s thesis seems to be aiming for: a consideration of a world where the gods can show up on stage and still not get things to go their way. Agamemnon’s trust in the sacrifice of Iphigenia as expiation to Artemis is of no use in saving his life; likewise Orestes’s trust in Apollo’s oracle doesn’t spare him from human justice. And even Athena’s decree that civic law should replace the lex talionis doesn’t seem, in this version’s more chilling conclusion, to carry any weight. Humanity’s butchery of humanity always has its justifications, and sometimes those are “god-given,” but what tribunal can truly adjudicate in matters like war or the violent retaliation of violence?

Though in some ways a Chorus’s show, there is also fine work throughout in the named roles: Sydney Lemmon’s regally detached Athene, with a grand entrance and a white helmet; Jonathan Higginbotham’s decadently detached Apollo, with a bored manner and a towering white wig; Andrew Burnap’s haunted Atreus; Anna Crivelli’s beleaguered Cassandra; Jonathan Majors’ surprisingly sympathetic Agamemnon; Annelise Lawson’s haughty Clytemnestra, and her harrowing scream; Ricardo Dávila’s conflicted Orestes; and Elizabeth Stahlmann’s distraught Elektra as a sorrowing Goth girl—an example of excellent costuming and casting. And special mention for young Remsen Welsh as Iphigenia, who, after her summary execution, returns to haunt the stage in key moments. And for Doug Perry, the percussionist stage right who punctuates and accompanies the action throughout, giving the whole a ritualistic feel that is never lost sight of.

Characters in Greek drama are not “roles” in the usual sense of character parts. One of the best aspects of this version of The Oresteia is that it makes us experience some of the mystery of myth, even as we realize that the great myths are meaningful because their interrogation of necessity, justice, obligation and mercy is both ancient and contemporary and never merely academic.

The Oresteia
Translated by Ted Hughes
Directed by Yagil Eliraz

Composer: Matthew Suttor; Scenic Designer: Fufan Zhang; Costume Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Green; Sound Designer: Pornchanok Kanchanabanca; Projection Designer: Michael Commendatore; Production Dramaturg: Davina Moss; Stage Manager: Helen Irene Muller; Photograph: T. Charles Erickson

Cast: Sebastian Arboleda; Andrew Burnap; Anna Crivelli; Ricardo Dávila; Edmund Donovan; Melanie Field; Jonathan Higginbotham; Annelise Lawson; Sydney Lemmon; Jonathan Majors; Elizabeth Stahlmann; Remsen Welsh

Percussionist: Doug Perry

Yale School of Drama
December 12-18, 2015