Where Are The Gods Now?

Review: 'The Oresteia' at the Shakespeare Theatre Company

The Oresteia / Shakespeare Theatre Co.

In 458 B.C. a director named Aeschylus won a contest—part of a yearly festival in which the collective performance and viewing of dramas was worship of the god Dionysus—with three plays that make up The Oresteia. Today it is the only complete trilogy we have of its kind.

It is fitting then that Michael Kahn, the Shakespeare Theatre Company's longtime artistic director, should, in his final directorship in that role before retirement, bring his own time as an Aeschylus full circle with a production of The Oresteia. In so many ways the first, it makes a good last. Of Kahn's legacy I have little say, since I have only lived in D.C. a short while and know his work more by reputation than experience. I leave it to other reviews to eulogize and celebrate him; it was clear from the reception after opening night that he has many friends and admirers.

Of his directing, there's little to complain about and much to commend. Kahn has staged the action of the play before the doors of the house of Agamemnon, a set whose fantastic grandeur evokes the mythic origins of the characters and whose architectural centerpiece conforms to the conventions of the Greek theatre it comes from. The actors might have stepped out in masks and tunics as easily as anything else. Kahn has gone with anything else, and the mix and match of time and place, of east and west with then and now in the costuming places The Oresteia as an inheritance for all of humanity. The Chorus is directed masterfully, both accentuating its oddness for modern sensibilities—the heightened, epic drama breaking the walls of our television-trained expectations—and paying homage to the ways Aeschylus himself altered and subverted that corporate role.

But this show is not just notable as a farewell to and bow from Kahn. It is also the premier of a new play by Ellen McLaughlin. The Oresteia though it may be called, it is "freely adapted" from the original trilogy, for three plays don't fit into a single evening. When you are cutting that much it is what you remove that makes the thing, like sculpting in marble. And what's been removed is the gods.

Which is weird, of course, if you think about where this play comes from. But it works astoundingly well in the first act, when we see how Agamemnon, burdened with the weight of rule and piety in a way unfamiliar to those who only know the Iliad, killed his own daughter so that the banished winds would blow and Greece could sail to war. Like Abraham ready to slaughter Isaac, Agamemnon's religion is one of conviction and resignation in solitude, and he is played with sublime dignity and sincerity by Kelcey Watson. Divinity here speaks only in the dreams of his daughter and the suffocations of his soul. His wife and his servants cannot know what he knows. And there is no ram in the thicket; no angel stays his hand.

Kelley Curran / Shakespeare Theatre Co.

There's no Aegisthus, either. The lover of Clytemnestra in her husband's long absence, in the Greek text he provides help and further motive for the queen's killing of her kingly husband. Without Aegisthus' iniquitous companionship, in McLaughlin's play Clytemnestra is not an angry adulterer but a doubter of unseen gods who has no ability to frame her husband's sacrifice as anything but meaningless monstrousness. It is as a grieving mother, who hates the gods she does not believe in, that she alienates her living children and plots alone to kill her husband, seeking her own kind of justice. Playing Clytemnestra, Kelley Curran anchors the cast with a stage presence that could fill the Gershwin. And while her Broadway-levels of polish and va-va-voom overshadow some of her companions, they are vital to keeping the compressed trilogy moving. When Orestes kills her, the last act drags.

It is in that final act, what for Aeschylus was the Eumenides, that we feel the absence of the divine most acutely. While we might have thought for a little that Orestes' mission of revenge was truly handed down from Olympus, believed his claim to hear the voice of Apollo, in the end we are forced to conclude he was merely mad. While broken by that madness and the guilt of his matricide Orestes believes he sees the Furies, it is only the Chorus. And it is only the Chorus, without Athena, without any gods at all, without king or queen, that puts Orestes and Electra on trial and, more by happenstance than real deliberation or decision, absolves them.  

Ellen McLaughlin's The Oresteia is not the classical story of vendetta's ancient transformation into law, of the lex talionis becoming the courtroom, where divine justice can be brought to bear on human crime in the sacred act of judgment. Instead, it is a very artful, very contemporary meditation on the way we muddle along as part of the mob in democratic society, hoping for justice but with no outside law or judge to point to. We are the Chorus, and we watch the elites and their tragedies. Drama is found in the heroic and the divine and deflates as those disappear. Here, as moderns looking back at the ancients, we seem to know: The gods are dead and the world is a dull anticlimax.