Realm of Dionysos
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The Greek Tragedies are not done often. The Greek Comedies are done just about never. That's a shame, because in the hands of a skillful translator and director, they are great shows. The main problem for modern audiences is that the comedies are often filled with references to current events, and it is no longer 450 BCE.
The urge of most directors is to replace period references with contemporary ones, much the way Gilber and Sullivan companies add local references rather than the original British ones. This usually makes for an uncomfortable fit, and leads the company further and farther from the original play.
We are happy to report that translator/director Stuart Bousel has not made any of the usual mistakes, and the result is a presentation of the play that focuses on the original comic materials, which are not at all difficult for a modern audience to comprehend. It is, after all, a play about how 'the theater is not what it once was," a play about two playwrites arguing as to who is best. One's experience may be deepened and enriched by knowing the works of Aeschuylus and Euripides, but not knowing them is no barrier to enjoying the very funny debate.
The performance is being staged by the Atmos Theater in the Woods in Woodside. I don't know whether I saw any of the town of Woodside, as I followed the directions on the net map: but it was a pleasant drive through the redwoods, and the theater itself is a pleasant little hike through more redwoods. The straightforward conceit of having the scene change by changing the scene is a logical and delightful one: and as one deseends the hill on one's way to Hades, one does go ever downward. --It is not so difficult a hike that little old ladies with canes held back. And though, at the end, one has to go back up the hill, the little old ladies were not in the least bothered by it. Besides, during the intermission, in Hades, one can purchase some tasty brownies, cookies, or bottle of water if you didn't bring one. The only disadvantage is that the porta-potties are at the top of the hill, so a trip up during intermission may be uncomfortable. Use the porta-poty first, and wait to drink more until the second act.
The first act of this play is carried pretty much by the actor playing Dionysos, though he does, of course, need a strong foil in the part of Xanthias, the God's long-suffering slave. Xanthias is the prototype for Figaro, and a long list of wily servants down through the ages. Both roles were well-handled, and if Nathan Tucker's Dionyso was perhaps a little more fey than effeminate, that has more to do with modern perception than the actor's skill. He was silly and appropriately cowardly (one senses here the playwrite's possible displeasure at Euripedes' handling of the God in The Bacchae), but rose to the occassion when Dionysos shows flashes of His power and Godhead. Tucker let us know, ever so subtly, that this deity could, if He chose, be dangerous. B. Warden Lawlor did a fine job with Xanthias, particularly in the role-switching scenes where he showed us what he thought a God should be like, while makiing clear that he really had no idea of what a master might be.
In the second act, Katarina Fabic stood out as a sly, sophisticated Persephone; though frankly, all the women were wonderful, particularly in the whipping scene, where they seized the stage wih their sexiness and vigor. I mean, really, it takes something to make Furies sexy! (There were a couple of name changes here from the original, so I am not sure who the wonderful woman was who played what Aristophanes called Aiakos -- she was great!)
But the play rises or falls on the final confrontation between the poets, and on the interlocutor vassilation of Dionysos, because you really have to grasp the comparisons. Propelled by Nathan Tucker's constant shift of enthusiasm, and the angy confrontaions of Ben Fisher as Euripedes and Carl Lucania as Aeschylus, this penultimate scene started a little slowly but quickly grew until we were all wrapped up in the argument, and laughing our heads off.
The final scene was carried off with a Mozartian aplomb that wrapped up this company's youthful vigor to a T, and then we all climbed the hill back to our cars, I am sure every one of us accounting the occassion well worth the effort.
Performances continue through weekends into the beginning of September. I would advise you get your tickets online, as I missed the first weekend: it's been selling out.
Iphigenia in Aulis
Doing the Ancient plays always seems like a daunting business to modern companies. There is that lurking fear that the distance in time and culture will make the characters and the context incompehensible to the modern, often unlearned or downright illiterate, audience. Yet the primal nature of these works is so powerful, so profoundly human, that the slightest hint will often open the pages for even the totally unitiated.
Patrick Dooley, the brilliant young director of the Shotgun Players, has done more than give us hints. He has provided an attractive program with witty insights, and a vaudville introduction to the horrors of the House of Atreus that both informs the novice audience and disarms any fears a newcomer to this material might have in the fae of such monolithic theater.
I should note here, upfront, that Shotgun is doing Iphigenia for free in the parks this summer; a very welcome change from the Shakespear that appears in every park in America (it would seem) these days. However, Shotgun is a small, young company, and it doesn't have the giant grants that sustain older, more established companies. The beautifully produced program, with its incisive and well-written notes, costs $2, and is well worth it. The company is also trying to sell some food and drink to help pay the bills. They were having a little trouble getting the food part together the week I was there, so you might want to call and ask before you abjure your own pic-nic. But if they are cooking, please help them out by scarfing down some of their goodies. That said--
The situation at Aulis is simple. The Greek armada is assembled, ready to head off to begin the Trojan War. But the Goddess Artemis is diviniely pissed at Agamemnon, leader of the army, and there is no wind with which to set sail.
Director Dooley (in his notes) describes it thus: "Think 100,000 bloodthirsty soldiers in Alameda with nothing to do." --You can substitute the name of your own local military base for Alameda (or Aulis) and get a pretty fair picture of what life in this picturesque town has become.
The seer (prophet) Khalkas has divined that in order for a wind to come up Agamemnon must sacrificie his daughter, Iphigenia, to the Goddess. And that's where the action begins.
But Shotgun does not assume that everyone in the audience is Hellenic by nature and so, by way of introduction, stages a clever vaudeville to introduce us (with double cleverness) not only to the gory history of the House of Atreus (it takes some real talent to make an amusing entertainment of this saga of cannibalsm, incest, and endless betrayal and murder), but to the stage conventions which will be used in the coming performance. This little pre-show was written by Joan McBrien, and she did a bangup job.
In Ancient Times three actors (all male) would have performed all the parts in the play. After a century of watching women play Hamlet, there is nothing surprising in seeing one man and two women take on all the roles; assisted by chorus and musicians. A mixture of Ancient and Modern technique is skillfully fused so that part of the characters have natural faces while part of them wear masks. Simple but effective costumes make the character changes complete, and one simply does not think about the fact that the same actress who plays Clytemnestra also plays Menelaus. Sure, we know that the old man is really a woman: but that doesn't matter. The characters are not the same, and that is the important thing. One listens to the words, one becomes involved in the drama.
And what a drama it is! One does not think of Agamemnon, in this play, as a particularly sympathetic character, but Jeff Elam , in this role, had me in tears as the father struggleld with the horror of what the Goddess was demanding of him. Elam was almost as convinving later in the role of Achilles, whose boisterous self-centeredness is finally broken down when he meets Iphigenia and vows (albeit unsuccessfully) to defend her.
Mary Eaton Fairfield gave us an excellent Menelaus, convincing in the arguments that have, from time immemorial, led us poor mortals into the blind alleys of bad but inescapable choices. Once committed, we are stuck with war; and I am not convinced that the arguments waged in our Congress over Vieit Nam are any better than the ones waged by the Greeks over Helen.
As Giradoux pointed out so eloquently, when you open the Gates of War, War will come in.
Ms. Fairfield shone even more brightly as Clytemnestra. It is a shame that most people see this character only from the perspective of the end of her life; for here, in this play, we see the terrible forces that will frame her end. She appears as a loving wife and mother, but as events grind along like a juggernaut, her almost titanic power emerges. How anyone, seeing the depiction of Clytemnestra is the many plays, could think of the Greek women as less than powerful, is a mystery of closed eyes and political correctness. When she informs her husband, in no uncertain terms, of the limites of his power and range of hers, we have no doubt where lines of authority were drawn. By the end her doubts have moved from the human to the divine arena, and the next chapter in the violence is assured.
We are also left to consider whether a miracle or a ruse is the reality.
Which brings us to the tital role of the play, Iphigenia, as beautifully rendered by Amaya Alonso Hallifax.
For the times in which we live this must surely be one of the most difficult of roles for an actress (or actor). This heroinne (in the classical sense) must move from naive, innocent ingenue, to mature, politically aware rescuer of (in the view of the characters, at least) the whole Greek peoples. She must, convincingly, turn the most monstrous of fates into a somehow ennobling destiny. She must alter her role from that of victim to that of savior , and she must make us believe that she belives in what she is doing.
Not an easy task, but for me, at least, Ms. Hallifax did it.
It is part of the Greek genius that the plays leave us with more questions than answers. Answers do not provide us with solutions to our everyday problems. It is only by continually examining our lives that we come to any wisdom, as Sokrates pointed out long ago. --As Theodore Sturgeon was fond of saying: "You must always ask the next question."
The John Hinkel Park ampetheater is small, and Shotgun's resources are limited. Cloth swatches must do for scenery. I imagine these are the conditions in which a small polis might present the plays which were given grand performances in the huge theaters of Athens or Argos. This means that the drama is, perforce, up close and personal. That technical backup is replaced by raw talent and intensity. In some ways, this is the most satisfactory kind of theater.
I am reminded of the Berkeley Repertory Theater in its early days, performing in an empty store on College Avenue. For each play they repainted the walls. There was certainly less room for the audience than for the stage, and that was not much. But there I saw "The Duchess of Malfi" with such passion as I have never seen it again. There I saw the Shaw plays that are not commercial enough to draw a big crowd. That was a heady time.
And Shotgun is there, right now, performing with raw nerve and talent. A handful of actors, some musicians, a few props; and it is magic time.
The play is closing August 12th, with a dawn performance: better catch it while you can.
17 July 2001
(My apology for not getting this written sooner,
but it's been one hell of a ride!)
The Berkeley Repertory Theater went all out to open its new, second theater, next door to its already excellent theater and separated from it by a courtyard. It chose to begin the history of theater all over again by making its initial performances the Oresteia of Aeschylus, as translated by Robert Fagles; and for the most part it did a bang-up job. We saw the performances on Friday, May 4th, when the whole thing was staged in one evening, the ideal way to see this trilogy, but perhaps a bit more theater than lily-livered modern audiences, raised on sound-bite segements and half hour plotless sandwiches which are mostly commercials, might be up to.
I should explain that Berkeley Rep performed the three plays normally as two evenings, with the longest, Agamemnon, as one play, and the second two, shorter plays, as a second evening. The occassions when they were all offered in sequence were, to my mind, far preferable, and the Rep enhanced the experience by providing a tasty Greek box lunch during the fairly long interval between Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers, with a pleasant desert intermission before The Eumenides.
That much described, we can get to the actual performances of the plays.
It was a great relief to see Agamemnon open with a realistic set, and an even further relief to see that the staging followed Aeschylus' stage directions. These plays have suffered greatly at the hands of directors and producers who thought they were being 'creative,' but were only failing to understand that their task was to make Ancient Theater intelligible to the modern audience. There was indeed a house, and there was, indeed, a watchman on the roof.
Beyond that, the actors were of that first rate quality that one expects from Berkeley Rep, arguably the best company in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The company did not attempt the three actor, masked staging of Ancient times, but that was not a drawback. Performed with the usual large cast of a modern performance, the chorus part was given disparate identity in a thoroughly convincing manner and the divers protagonists were thus allowed great range of characterization.
Hundreds of volumes have been written about the nature of Lyric theater as opposed to the Dramatic theater which eventually displaced it, so we need not go into Aeschylus' shifting sense of time and the way the drama emerges from images rather than events. Suffice to say that this play manages with a unit set to bring to life the whole ending of the Trojan War and its consequences, and to contain immense dramatic tension despite there being only two actual 'events' and a general knowledge, on the part of the audience, of exactly what is going to happen.
Although the play is named Agamemnon, and it is his fate which is at the center, the play really belongs to Clytaemnestra. We tend to think of her as monstrous because of the later plays written about her; but Aeschylus has given us a thoroughly rounded, even admirable, character. We may not agree with her decisions, but we can understand them. And it must be remembered that she is not some hideous hag, but the sister of Helen, and equally beautiful.
Robynn Rodrigues illuminated the part and brought Clytaemenestra to glorious life. By the time she had finished describing the relay beacons from Troy to Argos we could see what she saw, and we were totally with her. Her entrapment of Agamemnon in his own hubris was not some set piece, but completely convincing.This is a powerful woman, possesed of immense charisma, complex well beyond all but the best of modern protagonists (and that includes Shakespear); and, like most of the Ancient Greek plays about women, she tells us a great deal more about Ancient women than do the histories.
Derrick Lee Weeden gave us an Agamemnon who was easy to believe as the warrior who sacked Troy, but he was not quite up to his wife in the charisma end of Kingship. The difficulty with this part is that fine balance between warrior and rular, and it is no discredit to this fine actor that he lacked that small edge; in some ways, Agamemnon is like playing Hamlet and Claudius at the same time on the same stage. It's much harder than the 'unplayable' parts that Shakespear wrote for his favorite scenary chewer.
Francesca Faridany gave us a very good, very annimated Cassandra, ripped apart by her unhappy union with the God. From an Hellenic point of view, all she lacked was first hand knowledge of the Mantik art; but given that most actors must rely on the second hand testimony of the very unknowledgeable Bishop of Alexandria for background in this interpretation, I would describe her performance as excellent. After all, it is not as if Actor's Workshop has a course in prophesy.
Which leaves us with the role of Electra, a part requiring a curious 'presence' in this play as it must bridge the gap to the next play of the trilogy. Miriam Laube discharged this part very nicely indeed, never anticipating what was to come, yet hovering like a lighted shrub about to burst into flame; not oan easy accomplishment, but one absolutely necessary when the plays are done together.
Jonathan Haugen did well as Aegisthus, but this is a very peculiar part indeed, and one which I have never seen fully realized by anybody. After all, we should be in sympathy with this character for all the wrongs done him; but he has done enough wrong himself, and will further, that it is hard to like him. I suspect it will require a director of the greatest possible brilliance to figure out how this can all be accomplished.
Needless to say, everybody else was also superb. This was a performance to be treasured.
The Libation Bearers has suffered a lack of performance due largely to the more familiar plays about Electra by late poets. Yet its virtues are many, and in many ways it is a superior work to those that followed. The dramatic concision is amazing.
Although the women are again the principals of this play, the center of the drama is well balanced between the roles of Electra and Orestes. Indeed, it is Orestes who begins the play, returning, bent on vengence. He is already present when Electra comes to the grave of Agamemnon, and the 'recognition scene' is terse, intense, and above all logical in its context.
Duane Boutte was a properly post-adolescent Orestes, raging, unsure, desperate at the direction of the God. He fretted at the edges of the erotic, like a youth who has put his sex drive on hold until 'family matters' are settled out. This is precisely the kind of actor, and the kind of performance, that should go into Hamlet. (Remember that the historical Hamlet was older than the one Shakespear wrote; he was just home from college; which in Willy's time would about been 17 or 18.) This was no sure-of-himself older man with a settled in dedication; this was a kid with no idea of the outcome, only a divine directive to guide him.
Miriam Laube similarly brought forth desperation. No years of brooding neurotic she, but a young woman whose emotional response to the cirumstances happens before our eyes. That sense of waiting presence which she brought to the Agamemnon was here nurtured into full flower, and all the conflicting passions happened on stage, not in the wings. More, in a work where it would be easy to dominate, she gave stage appropriately and made sure this center play in the trilogy was indeed balanced between Electra and Orestes; who must, in the end, carry the tension into the last part.
Aegisthus comes off better in this play than in the Agamemnon, and Jonathan Haugen did manage to engage our sympathies, despite the fact that the character, character-wise, has degenerated in his years of ruling Argos.
But it is the flashes of fire and will from Robynn Rodriguez' Clytemnestra that finally turned the human drama into a conflagration as she challenged her son Orestes to dare to murder her. Orestes and Electra were hot tinder; Clytemnestra, in an act of hurbis far exceeding that of her husband, throws on the torch.
This was a great scene, and the actors brought it off splendidly.
More people these days know Electra from the Strauss/Hoffmanstahl opera than from the stage, which is all very well, but also a pity. It is one of the greatest of operas, but it leaves one with the feeling of 'happily ever after' for Orestes, which is just not the case. Mihaud did a kind of dramatic contata of The Libration Bearers which could readily be staged, but Milhaud's stage works have been sadly neglected.
At the end of The Libation Bearers Orestes is, essentialy, driven mad by the horror of what he has just done, and rushes off to seek purification at the hands of Apollon, the God of resolutions.
And here the modern thespian runs into trouble.
Wagner gave us a drama of Gods in Das Rheingold, but his Gods appear at the beginning, to explain the sources of the human drama that follows. Aeschylus gives us a drama of human passions and only lets us see the Gods at the end, when They are called up to resolve the problems which human passions have brought about.
The Eumenides opens with divine forces which, to the modern audience, represent primal issues. Orestes has been purified by Apollon at Delphi, but the Furies, spurred on by the vengeful shade of Clytemnestra, will not accept the purification.
What to do?
It is no shame that Berkeley Rep faltered on this, one of the most difficult plays for moderns to understand.
The Pythia's scene, at the opening curtain, was fascinating and well-acted, from a theatrical point of view. Angelina Reaux carried it off very nicely. But in the overall conception it seems to have escaped notice that the Pythia is subject to the same mantik ethusiasm as Cassandra, albeit that she is willing servant to the God and honored by her state rather than cursed by it. This appearance by a woman possesed of the God's prophecies (but here presevented from delivering them) is one of the many arcs which Aeschylus uses for his archetecture, and unless there is a unity of presentation, the point is missed.
The costuming, which has up to this point supported the performance, in this play begins to falter. Apollon looks more like a Roman general than a Greek God. The Furies give the impression of mummies who have drunk too many tana leaves. And the actress playing Athena looked embarrassed by her get-up, though in fact it was not as bad as it might have been.
Then there was the attempt to tie the whole thing to modern times by dressing the jurors in modern clothing and pulling them from the audience. This might have worked, but in this case it didn't.
I once saw a performance of this play staged by a committed Feminist who thought it was about the oppression of the Matriarchy by the Patriarchy. Had her understanding been correct, then the Matriarchy would have stood, in this dramaturgy, for unending blood guilt and revenge, and the Patriarchy for reason, compassion, and resolution.
She was wrong.
This play is about one of the most important events in the history of Humankind, that moment when moral responsibilty is transferred from the exclusive realm of the Gods to that of the inclusive domain of Humanity. That much is very clear, right on the surface. What the Gods cannot settle, because each is exclusively powerful, humans must settle through consensus. Athena's invention of the jury to settle what has become a legal matter is emblematic of the evolutionary step.
The difficulty in producing the play comes after the jury has decided the verdict. We moderns are familiar with the idea of compensation, most simply in the form of fines, or awards in suits. We are not so familiar with the concept of paying that fine or compensation to divine beings; and that is really what happens at the end.
Even the astute Robert Fagles, translator and poet of extraordinary talent, has trouble clarifying this to the modern audience, primarily because that audience has virtually no common ground of experience. Hellenic Polytheists are on safer footing here, but Berkeley Rep can't very well expect to fill the theater with us.
It is sort of as if the God of Israel had shewn up in court, outraged that Jews and Christians were no longer respecting His rules for sacrifice. The jury finds against Him in this particular case, but the judge grants that He is to remain respected; only in order to get His customary sacrifices, He has to change His name.
"We won't call you God anymore, we'll call you Allah, and we will institute a whole bunch of new religious practices, and really, you won't get dissed and you will get honored, maybe more than before."
Thus we condense two thousand years of human religious history into the last ten minutes of a play by Aeschylus in a futile attempt to explicate an emotional response that may very well be impossible for the majority of theater goers today.
Given the difficulty of this play, let me just say that everybody did very well indeed. The humans in the cast remained human and passionate. The Gods, though obviously uncomfortable playing parts for which they had no role models, were also pretty darned good.
I went home with my head full of music that I will probabaly not live long enough to write, and it seems to me that if the voices of actors have put music in the brain, then they have done better than could be expected.
I don't really know how to solve the problems of presenting this last play. While Berkeley Rep, and directors Tony Taccone and Stephen Wadsworth, carried off the first two plays pretty flawlessly, the presentation of the Gods in a naturalistic, very human manner, didn't quite work. For the play to come off there needs to be some distinction (beyond costume) between the Gods and the mortals. We need to feel the qualitative difference between Them and us, and that difference has to be infused into the performance of the actor. As Scott Fitzgerald might have said, if he wrote this sort of review: "The Gods really are different!"
Beyond that, I can only note that you won't find any better performances than those by Berkeley Rep. Remember that any time you attend the Theater you are honoring Dionysos; so don't wait for another Oresteia to come along. Pour your libation and save up for some tickets. You will be rewarded!
18 May 2001