‘The Oresteia’ trilogy makes strong showing

By John Angell Grant Daily Planet Correspondent
Friday March 23, 2001

Berkeley Repertory Theatre opened parts two and three of its strong, epic staging of Greek playwright Aeschylus’ 458 B.C. tragic trilogy “The Oresteia” on Wednesday in its new Roda Theater, adjacent to the company’s old space on Addison Street in downtown Berkeley. 

These two short plays, each running slightly more than an hour, are a continuation of part one of the trilogy, which opened a week earlier. All three parts of “The Oresteia”– an epic story of murder, revenge, justice and redemption – now runs in repertory through the first week of May. 

“The Oresteia” is a complicated and tangled story. In part one (“Agamemnon”),Queen Clytemnestra murders her husband Agamemnon when he returns home from the Trojan War. 

In part two (“The Libation Bearers”), Clytemnestra’s estranged son Orestes returns home to the family compound seven years later to cut up his mother and her lover Aegithus in a bloody execution as revenge for his father’s death. 

In part three (“The Eumenides” ), the Furies haunt and torture the guilt-ridden Orestes, trying to destroy him as revenge for his mother’s murder. 

When the god Apollo protects Orestes from the crazed Furies, a debate ensues over which murder was worse: Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband, or Orestes’ murder of his mother. 

The goddess Athena then intervenes by inventing the process of trial-by-jury, putting Orestes on trial and advising the humans judging him to find balance and the golden mean in their ultimate decision. She also helps the Furies transform their rage into a positive nurturing and guardian social force. 

There are many strong directorial touches from “Oresteia” co-directors Tony Taccone and Stephen Wadsworth in the double bill of parts two and three that opened Wednesday. 

At the top of the show, in the eerie opening graveyard scene of "The Libation Bearers," Electra and a chorus of mourning servant women wail at the grave of her father Agamemnon, slowly pulling the stealthy Orestes out of his hiding place in the weeds and into their circle of revenge. 

In a bloody denouement, Orestes’ murders of Clytemnestra and Aegithus remind us where slasher movies took their inspiration. The ending of part two is chilling, as sister Electra and a chorus of servant women celebrate the murders with an angry wail. 

In part three, “The Eumenides,” there is finally some humor, after all the darkness that has gone before. 

When goddess Athena (Michelle Morain, looking a little like Dale Evans in white go-go boots) bursts in comically on the Furies’ torture of Orestes, the stage lights go bright for the first time. Breaking the fourth wall, a trial jury in modern dress is pulled out of the audience for the play’s conclusion. 

What’s so strong about Aeschylus’ story is not just the magnificence and complexity of the myth, but how personal the playwright’s telling is. Aeschylus took well-known episodes from mythology, and turned them into powerful, personalized moment-to-moment stories. 

Fittingly, the performances in parts two and three are personal ones, not stagy or oratorical.  

Duane Boutte is an intense Orestes. Derrick Lee Weeden is striking as Orestes’ companion Pylades, a character with few lines but lots of stage time as the ever watchful aide, peering into dark corners alertly, and guarding his friend’s safety. 

Jonathan Haugen is a high-strung Aegithus in part two, the lover of Clytemnestra. He returns in part three as a stubborn, but articulate god Apollo, the guardian of Orestes in his trials. The zombie Furies of part three, defending the injustice done to the woman Clytemnestra, make a big impact. 

Christopher Barreca’s scenic design has spectacular moments. In part two, Orestes creeps at the edge of a graveyard in long dry grass that crackles and breaks when he flattens himself to hide. 

In part three, the sets have moments where they steal the show, from the massive stone exterior of Apollo’s temple at Delphi, to the interior of Athena’s temple the Acropolis, to the stunning, brightly lit grassy mountain seacoast where the final jury trial takes place. 

Composer Larry Delinger’s modern, simple electronic tones and drumming provide great moments of punctuation, pushing the drama of the story forward at key points, like a good movie soundtrack. 

Peter Maradudin’s powerful lighting design yields from dark and gloomy to bright and hopeful at the play’s transformative conclusion. 

And so ends this tale of triple familicide, a story about revenge and justice, and about the transformation of anger and rage to love. 

It is a bold move for the folks at the Rep to launch their new Roda Theater with such a sober, serious and difficult show. “Guys and Dolls” this ain’t. 

But if you like your theater dark, dense, difficult and meaningful, there is an important wisdom here for the fragile, conflict-ridden and revenge-filled global village that we now live in.  

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