"The Oresteia Project' at the Fringe Festival

Aeschylus lives!

Block (left) with Brian McCann: Sympathy for a murderer.
Block (left) with Brian McCann: Sympathy for a murderer.

Greek drama is honored more than it's actually performed these days. So it was a special treat to see a new group revive the three plays of Aeschylus's The Oresteia, originally performed in 458 B.C. and today our only surviving example of a trilogy of ancient Greek dramas.

The plays were presented here as staged "readings." Although the actors carried books in hand, they barely glanced at them. These were full-out performances, dramatically presented, using balconies and aisles as well as a mainstage area.

The English adaptation by Brenna Geffers was direct and easy to follow, and the dialogue turns out to have strong contemporary relevance, especially when characters complained that the king was sending thousands of young men into an unnecessary foreign war.

With each play trimmed to one hour, however, their ruminative contemplation is shortchanged. As in the original, the bloody action takes place offstage and unseen, albeit colorfully described by the cast.

Today we know the story mostly through modern plays and operas, like Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Elektra and the Richard Strauss-Hugo von Hofmannstahl opera Elektra. So it was revealing to see and hear the story behind those stories.

Sympathy for the villain

Some theatergoers think of Greek tragedy as simplistic and heavy-handed. What we saw here was subtle and nuanced.

Most of us know that King Agamemnon's daughter Electra avenges his murder by plotting the death of his adulterous wife, Electra's mother Clytemnestra, and her evil lover, Aegisthus. But this production reveals sympathetic qualities in Aegisthus and strong justifications for his past actions.

In the first play we learned that Aegisthus is Agamemnon's cousin and the sole survivor of a dispossessed branch of the family. Agamemnon's father, King Atreus of Mycenae, had a feud with his brother Thyestes and proposed to settle matters at a festive banquet. The main course of the meal turned out to be the body parts of Thyestes's eldest son (Agamemnon's brother). We hear how, when the father recognized his son's fingers, he regurgitated the meal. Aegisthus had to flee into exile.

Clytemnestra's anger explained

Clytemnestra, too, reveals greater dimension. Years after the above-mentioned cannibalistic banquet, Helen (Clytemnestra's sister and wife of Agamemnon's brother Menelaus) ran off with a Trojan man and Agamemnon retaliated by waging war against Troy. Compounding the tale, Agamemnon was frustrated at the lack of winds to carry his ships to Troy, so he prayed to a god who told him to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. He did so, naturally causing resentment from Iphigenia's mother, Clytemnestra.

When Agamemnon returned from ten years at war, he brought with him Cassandra, the enslaved daughter of the Trojan king, as his concubine, further angering his wife Clytemnestra. Cassandra has been given clairvoyance so that she can foresee future events, but is cursed so that no one who hears her prophecies will believe them until it's too late.

She enters the palace, knowing that her fate is preordained and unavoidable. We hear death screams, and a carpet is rolled out, displaying the butchered corpses of Agamemnon and Cassandra, along with Clytemnestra brandishing a bloody axe and defiantly explaining her action.

Killing a parent

The next play, The Libation Bearers, continues the tale, as Orestes returns and murders his mother and her lover. He is then beset by the Furies, whose task is to punish those who kill a parent.

The final play of the trilogy, The Eumenides, portrays Orestes on trial. After Apollo successfully defends Orestes, the goddess Athena extols the importance of reason in the development of laws, making this play an emblem of Athenian democracy. Clearly, Aeschylus was trying to show how equitable, intelligent government could overcome generations of vengeful slaughter.

Geffers assembled a good cast, including Deborah Block (who often is a director herself) as a forceful Clytemnestra, and a new face to me, Aime Kelly, as a surprisingly tender Electra. Drumming and other percussive effects were added by Josh Tortora.

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