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Ancient Treasures

By James Yeara

The Orestia Trilogy: Agamemnon, Choephori, and The Eumenides

By Aeschylus, translated by Ted Hughes, directed by Gregory Thompson

Bard SummerScape, the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, through Aug. 2

Director Gregory Thompson’s first image in his production of Agamemnon, the first play in the 2,500-year-old Orestia trilogy, is a bronze Greek sword dangling by a wire 13 feet above the stage; a 12-foot-wide ramp runs the length of the theater dividing the audience. After a moment of darkness, the first line spoken is a prayer from an Argos watchman: “You Gods in heaven/Who have watched me for 12 months, 13 moons . . . it is time to release me.” Five hours later, the last image in the final play of the trilogy, The Eumenides, is of the black-robed Furies, stripped to thin white undergarments, descending to their sacred cavern beneath Athens, a white bottom light creating an aura around them. Athene exclaims the last line as a benediction: “So God and Fate, in a divine marriage/Are made one in the flesh/Of all our people/And the voice of their shout is single and holy.”

In between are enough acts of murder—matricide, patricide, genocide, and one relatively simple homicide—curses, cannibalism, revenges, prophecies, and bloodshedding to satiate devotees of The Lord of the Ring trilogy and the Saw franchise.

Whether seen as separate plays or all in sequence on one day (the scheduling allows for either, but the theatrical orgy occurs only on Saturdays), Thompson’s production is mesmerizing. Using British poet laureate Ted Hughes’ 1999 translation of what can be deadly academic material, Thompson uses his stagecraft to serve the story: the complex tale of King Agamemnon’s (a powerful Hilton McRae) return to Argos at the fall of Troy; his subsequent bloody murder in the bath by his faithless wife Clytemnestra (an alluring Mary Jo Randle); her equally bloody murder of the Trojan prophetess Cassandra (a captivating Beth Fitzgerald); the defiling of Agamemnon’s body; the subsequent bloody revenge Agamemnon’s son Orestes (an emphatic Richard Glaves) takes against his mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus (the dexterous Derek Hutchinson, who also plays the Watchman) at the frantic urging of his sister, Electra (an agitated Louise Collins); and the Furies’ (Fitzgerald, Hutchinson, McRaie, Collins, and Rhys Meredith in frightening performances that are the acting highlight of the Orestia) pursuit of Orestes, who is saved only by the interventions of Apollo (a skillful David Fielder) and Athene (a pristine Aoife McMahon).

Thompson’s staging is a thing to behold, aided by Ellen Cairns’ imaginatively deft costuming (initially modern for Agamemnon, then becoming more ritualized and archetypal as the trilogy unfolds) and superb set design (panels in huge gold and silver frames to the left and right of the raked ramp opened to reveal bedroom or parlour tableaux, and Kai Fischer’s evocative lighting design.

Hughes’ translation combines the mundane and the poetic; it’s a synthesis of the gods’ sublimity and the workers’ earthy observations. Thompson aids this with his directorial choices: A TV reporter (McMahon) and her guest analysts (a stately Sandra Voe and Fielder) act as the Agamemnon chorus, dissecting the events, while in The Eumenides the audience becomes part of the proceedings, voting by casting black or white stones to determine Orestes’ guilt or innocence.

Ultimately, director Gregory Thompson’s production of the Orestia trilogy is subversive. The use of multimedia, the shifting of the very physical form of the stage, and the clarity of the stage pictures all support the action of the play, a rarer theatrical occurrence than you’d suppose. The 10-actor cast is peerless: diction, action, focus all make clear the story. The performances in The Eumendies are reason enough to see at least that production if you cannot gorge on the full three plays, and the protean performances of the Furies may have you flipping as I did through the program to see who these actors are.

Despite the gods and heroes in the Orestia, in their spines these are plays about families, and any father who’s been unfortunate enough to be in a Family Court will applaud Hughes’ condemnation of the inherent injustice of The Furies: Apollo cross-examines them stating “you recognize no contract with the father. It may be the law of Earth, but it is not justice.” Such modern connections are a mark of the excellence created in Thompson’s productions. The richness of the Orestia’s themes is fully realized by director, designers, and actors, raising the theatrical bar impossibly high. These are rare productions that should not be missed.

Sibling rivalry: Sparks and Corddry in True West.

Home on the Range

True West

By Sam Shepard, directed by Daniel Goldstein

Williamstown Theatre Festival, main Stage, ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, Williamstown, Mass., Through July 26

Sam Shepard writes good plays. His work is known for being hard, gritty, and painfully familiar, his characters broken, desperate and vicious. The guy has a Pulitzer Prize, eleven Obie Awards and two Tony nominations (one for True West) to his name. When it comes to raw material, you can’t ask for much more than that. The production of True West currently playing on Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Main Stage sometimes mines exquisite moments of richness, complexity and humor from Shepard’s brutal story, but at least as much of the script’s potential is lost in the uneven interpretation.

True West finds two brothers—Ivy League-educated aspiring screenwriter Austin (Nate Corddry) and wandering grifter Lee (Paul Sparks)—together for the first time in five years at their mom’s suburban home while she visits Alaska. Austin has just sold a pitch to producer Saul Kimmer (Stephen Kunken), and is there to work in solitude. Having drifted in unexpectedly from the desert, Lee manages, through a series of gambles and manipulations, to sell his own movie idea instead. The two are trapped together in a whirlwind of envy and resentment, to write the great contemporary western—a fantasy that implodes with nearly as much ferocity as their strained relationship.

Director Daniel Goldstein clearly works tightly with his technical team, and the result is, appropriately, simultaneously both harshly real and eerily surreal. The play opens on the exterior of a modest modular home in Southern California. Without drapes, the mechanical workings in the wings and flyspace of the ’62 Center’s large stage are exposed. Large floor spots and low-hanging lights complete the effect. At open, a team of jumpsuited stagehands rotate the home to expose the tidy, dated kitchen interior—where all of the play’s action occurs.

Neil Patel’s set design effectively creates the look of a Hollywood soundstage, which serves to parallel the brothers’ moviemaking, and blur, as Shepard’s script often does, the shifting line between their lives and their story. True West is, inherently, an intensely claustrophobic play, and the escapist fantasies of its characters are fueled by the constantly increasing oppressiveness of the tiny home and the lives inside it. Patel manages to create this tightness on a vast stage, though perhaps the play would have been better served by the intimacy of Williamstown’s smaller Nikos Stage.

Ben Stanton’s lighting plays well with Patel’s set, casting a dingy incandescence in the kitchen, and a series of glorious open-range lightscapes on the desert scrim. Sound designer Darren West weaves Old West instrumentals through scene changes with striking impact. Sharp silences are layered with the conspicuous drone of crickets, the piercing cries of far-off coyotes and the wails of their prey.

Paul Sparks is immediately and enduringly compelling as Lee. He creates a thoroughly detailed character, wild and wounded, out of control and forcefully controlling. Sparks finds the humor in Lee’s recklessness, but never without the underlying anguish. Unfortunately, Corddry’s Austin is too restrained to balance the primarily two-character play, and as a result, Sparks’ Lee becomes overbearing. While Austin is surely reserved, even inhibited, he seethes under the surface with things unsaid. Corddry rarely pushes him beyond mild irritation. A few early explosions seem forced, and his drunken unraveling insincere and controlled. When finally, in a famous long final scene involving the choreography of a dozen or so toasters and the total destruction of Mom’s pristine kitchen, Corddry finally offers a fresh, honest and beautifully broken character, it is at once a relief and a disappointment. He is at his best when he is undone, but it leaves one longing for the complexity of his undoing. As it is, the play’s best life emerges from nowhere.

Stephen Kunken is acceptable but unexceptional as Saul Kimmer, creating a polyester-suited producer with broad and insignificant strokes.

Goldstein does little to shape the nuanced power struggles of the first two thirds of the play, or the intricate dynamic between the brothers. He puts too much weight in the final scene, when everything is laid bare, and too little significance in the subtlety of the subtext Shepard’s script uses to get there.

In the play’s last few minutes, Debra Jo Rupp enters as Mom, back unexpectedly from Alaska. Her bright and tiny tidiness is an island in her ruined kitchen, her sons literally at each other’s throats. Rupp packs the performance with understated layers of excruciating intricacy—a minute whirlwind that reveals exactly what the bulk of the production is missing.

—Kathryn Geurin


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