Election Section

‘Oresteia’ is vengeful first part in trilogy

By John Angell Grant Daily Planet Correspondent
Friday March 16, 2001

Berkeley Repertory Theater opened the first show in its striking, new-built, steeply vertical 600-seat Roda Theater Wednesday with an ambitious production of “Agamemnon,” the first part of 5 century B.C. Greek playwright Aeschylus’ epic trilogy “The Oresteia.” 

Parts two and three of the trilogy – “The Libation Bearers” and “The Eumenides”– open next Wednesday, and then the full trilogy continues in repertory through the first week of May. 

“The Oresteia”– the only surviving example of an ancient Greek trilogy – is generally considered to be ground zero in Western dramatic tradition. As far as we know, playwright Aeschylus is the writer who invented dialogue on the stage. Only seven of his approximately 90 plays have survived. 

The Berkeley Rep production is an ambitious one. This trilogy is rarely performed in its entirety. 

“The Oresteia” is complicated epic story of human beings and gods locked in conflict with each other over land and power. 

Built around the events that triggered the Trojan War, and then the bloody outcome that ensued, “The Oresteia” centers on one family caught in a cycle of murder and revenge. 

By its end, the trilogy evolves from a story of murder and revenge to one of the discovery of self-determination among human beings, and the creation of justice. 

Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone said, “In planning for the opening of our new theater. I wanted to go back to the roots of drama and western civilization.” 

“ ‘The Oresteia’ explores a community’s break from a cycle of vengeance,” he said. “It’s a formation of a new world of democracy and dispassionate justice.” 

The “Agamemnon” segment of the trilogy, which opened Wednesday, is a violent and bloody story of karmic retribution. 

In this play, Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief of the Greek army, returns home exhausted but victorious after a 10-year absence fighting the Trojan War, only to be murdered by his wife Clytemnestra. 

The wife’s act is one of revenge for her husband having sacrificed one of their daughters 10 years earlier in order to appease a god who caused ill winds that prevented the Greek army from sailing for Troy. 

In the second episode of the trilogy, opening at the Rep next week, wife and mother Clytemnestra herself is then murdered by son Orestes as revenge for her killing his father Agamemnon. 

“The Oresteia” is co-directed by Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone and distinguished collaborator Stephen Wadsworth. 

In past seasons, Wadsworth has directed at the Rep productions of "The Triumph of Love" and "Changes of Heart," by Marivaux, and Oscar Wilde’s "An Ideal Husband." He is well-known around the country and around the world as the director of many distinguished productions of theater and opera. 

"Agamemnon" is a bleak story, but a powerful one. At its start, a chorus of citizens--led by the impressive Frank Corrado--wait around the palace for Agamemnon to return, retelling the long history of this family and its struggle, point by point. 

Directors Taccone and Wadsworth have effectively divided up the chorus lines among several chorus characters, to create some sense of individual personalities within the chorus. 

News of the arrival of Agamemnon soon brings joy and fear. The people of the land are glad to have him back, but Clytemnestra’s evil intentions are floating in the air. 

Among the actors, Robynn [sic] Rodriguez’ calculating and focused Clytemnestra is a force of nature, waiting for her estranged husband to arrive so she can kill him. L. Peter Callender has a very powerful segment as the herald arriving in advance of Agamemnon’s army to tell the story of their history and psychology. 

There are many subtle and moving directorial touches in this production, especially in the first half. The first meeting in ten years between Agamemnon (Derrick Lee Weeden) and Clytemnestra is a powerful cat and mouse game. 

There is a long, tantalizing segment in which Agamemnon (Derrick Lee Weeden) is reluctant to step off the carriage he arrives in, and touch the ground of his homeland for the first time in ten years. Agamemnon and Clytemnestra take a long time getting to their first kiss. 

In this primal story of war and political struggle, individual chorus members communicate subtle information about the gender politics of this world in unspoken background reactions. 

For me, the Berkeley Rep production is more powerful in its first half than its second half. When Agamemnon’s concubine from the war tells her long story of forecasting and divination, the staging gives up its interesting gloss on the action that the secondary characters in the chorus have provided early on with their distinctive individual reaction moments. 

Peter Maradudin’s stark lighting design is an important part of this telling, which begins in the darkness of night, and then changes with the time of day and the gloomy, unpredictable weather. 

“Agamemnon” opens with a vengeful wife’s grief and anger over a daughter’s murder. When the curtain falls, another daughter Electra is grieving over the latest family homicide, and contemplating her own revenge. 

The murdering continues with Part Two, next week. Welcome to a deep karmic nightmare. This is a scary family. 

Planet theater reviewer John Angell Grant has written for “American Theatre,” “Callboard,” and many other publications. E-mail him at jagplays@yahoo.com