An Arresting "Orestes"

The Yale Cabaret states its mission to be “a gauntlet thrown in the face of our future, a scar in the memory of our audience, a ballerina dancing with a stick of dynamite.”  If this sounds a bit in your face, can that be a bad thing?  Theater can’t cuddle its audience, that’s what TV is for.  And unlike an audience watching a film in a moviehouse, a theater-going audience shouldn’t be allowed to hide in their darkened seats, secure in the fact that whatever they’re watching is already in the past. At Yale Cabaret, the audience sits at tables at the same level as the performers.  There’s nowhere to hide.  And for the first show of the 2009-10 Season, the audience had to sit or stand outside along two of the four sides of a courtyard in the middle of which Euripedes’ blood-thirsty and manic Orestes was enacted by a small ensemble cast of seven players.  In fact, we were gestured to a few times as an ugly mob, and Elektra even demanded we keep alert and pay attention.

The play is a good choice for the Cab’s stated goal.  For if any classical author lives up to that mission statement, it’s Euripedes.  Brechtian “alienation effect,” Artaudian “theater of cruelty,” Beckettian “theater of the absurd” -- none of them have anything on Euripedes.  Reading his plays, one is never sure whose side we’re supposed to be on.  It’s not that everyone is equally bad, it’s just that no one is really good, or noble, or virtuous, or even tragically misunderstood.  It’s as if his characters suffer from the hubris of believing the gods give a shit; worse, they sometimes think they understand what the gods want and try to act accordingly.

Orestes, in Devin Brain’s production, was even more than usual denuded of the voice of reason.  By cutting the figure of Tyndareos, who counsels his young grandson to give into what the polis decides, and by removing a speech which describes the arguments in the agora, this Orestes knocked away the prop supporting the contention that the play is about the need to replace blood-vengeance with civil proceeding -- which should have been used against Orestes’ husband-murdering mother and her paramour in the first place.

Instead of such city-state thematics, we have a tale of two siblings, Orestes and Elektra, wrapped together in a rather sensual folie à deux: they plotted the killing of their mother and now are pariahs who have only each other.  The pair becomes a trio with the introduction of Pylades, a stalwart friend of Orestes to whom Elektra is promised, should they live.  But one can’t help feeling, after the trio exchange full kisses with one another, that, if they live, they should all live together happily ever after in a ménage à trois.  Does that make us less sympathetic to them or more?

Hard to say, but when they try to murder Helen (whom they hate and whom Euripedes seems really to enjoy pillorying), and grab her unsuspecting daughter Hermione as hostage, running up a fire escape above the courtyard  to hurl taunts at Menelaos while insisting on negotiating a way out of their death sentence, they become gleeful would-be killers, a kind of mini Baader Meinhof cell, asserting their rights, but more than anything their detestation of the likes of Menelaos and Helen, the bourgeois beginners of battles that others must die to fight (Elektra -- played with suitable heart-wrenched woe by Emily Trask -- even gives a very affecting speech to that effect, mourning all those fallen Greek heroes at Troy).

Indeed, with Elektra so distraught, and Orestes, as played by Babak Gharaei-Tafti as somewhat of a maunderer, so clearly in need of her (and so happy he can call her a man in a woman’s body), and Helen so vain, and Menelaus so bureaucratic, it’s hard not taking the side of the kids, blood-lust, sex-lust, and all.

Then Apollo steps in.  As played by Kevin Daniels -- hairless bare chest, hairless bare head, black, in white flannel -- he steps in like the guy from upper management who has to put the peons in their place.  He’s scathing, indifferent, and incontestable.  Hermione and Orestes will marry!  We can imagine the wonderful get-togethers they’ll have at Menelaos’ place, or maybe Hermione will one day complain that her hubby never holds a knife to her throat any more like when they first met.  It matters not to Apollo -- or to Euripedes either.  We get the gods we deserve, and seeing the imperious shrug of the Sun god as he doled out just deserts put a big smile on my face.

It’s hard to say who Euripedes has more contempt for: these mythic figures whose messy lives have to be rehearsed again and again, or the audience that expects theater somehow to make sense of what makes no sense.  For a modern audience, that level of absurdity is always to some extent comforting, for it shows us that someone else has noted, and determined how to enact, mirth in passion, doubt in belief, randomness in justice, death in sex.

A great start to the season!