Oh how I wish that an embargo
Had kept in port the good ship Argo!
Who, still unlaunch’d from Grecian docks,
Had never passed the Azure rocks;
but now I fear her trip will be a
Damn’d business for my Miss Medea, &c. &c.
So Lord Byron burlesqued the nurse’s speech that opens Euripides’ most famous play, anachronistically camping up tragedy beyond pathos.
Ragged Wing Ensemble is working in a similiar vein with their new (and original) piece, So Many Ways to Kill a Man, playing at the Willard Metal Shop Theater off Telegraph Avenue.
Ragged Wing has old torch songs of heartbreak and betrayal playing before their show. Yet So Many Ways to Kill a Man is a kind of riff on the Oresteia and the related tragedies about the House of Atreus in Greek myth, touched up a little noirishly here and there, and vaudevillized by this talented group, who understand what trouping’s all about.
It’s not exactly Mourning Becomes Electra—set by Eugene O’Neill in New England, post-Civil War, structured like the Oresteia—but it’s getting there. Before four screens, spaced across the back of the stage, with a slash of blood-red paint running continuously across them, Amy Sass (who scripted So Many Ways) poses as Clytemnestra, a femme fatale, flicking her cigarette lighter shut with a click! after lighting up; Anna Shneiderman (who wrote the songs) alternately huddled or exalted in an Oriental robe as Cassandra, captive Trojan princess and doomed prophetess; and Keith Davis, in what look like desert fatigues with combat ribbons and a red beret, as world-weary Agamemnon, survivor of the 10-year siege, returning to die at his wife’s hand in Argos, prescient yet unflinching, ready for the knife he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia with.
One quick series shows Ragged Wing at its signature best: Sass as Clytemnestra recounts as Davis and Shneiderman pantomime the sacrifice—when, with a quick leap, Shneiderman sits on Davis’ shoulders, miming drawing back a bow, while both recite in unison Artemis’ edict at father immolating his child—then the deus ex machina dissolves as Shneiderman slips down into Davis’ arms, Cassandra once again, carried off from Troy as Agamemnon’s soldier’s pay.
Breaking up the vignettes, the three—Ragged Wing’s core group—lift up puppets, becoming the voices of a dithering chorus of townspeople, wondering what’s going on, trading gossip, reading the paper together, talking about the boss returning from the war—and “The Bitch” he’ll encounter.
In a way, the longer opening act, fluctuating between a touch of camp and many shades of grey, of reflection spoken out loud and the anguish of a love triangle acted out, is a springboard for the capper of the quick second act, the younger generation, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon’s brood: “Lectra, Shneiderman in shades and a mohawk, tagging her monicker on a screen; Davis as Orestes in Hawaiian shirt, shooting dice; Sass as a Rapunzelish Crysothemis, “the Other One,” a pregnant Pollyanna. The contrast works: Shneiderman from nurturing prophetess to brash iconoclast; Davis from stoic warrior to slacker son; Sass from femme fatale to ingenue.
If it sounds like cabaret-tragedy, in the same way much post-Sondheim musical theater could be called cabaret-musicals, there’s something to it. Tragedy itself was often deliberately anachronistic, resetting the myths in Athenian present time, for political-social effect. And tragedians after Euripides, himself only the third generation, began composing melodrama, which originally meant a greater emphasis on music and the swing of emotion associated with it, than the grand ambiguities of tragedy.
Much in the way of cultural attitude about myth—and fiction—seems to have developed in the wake of tragedy: Plato, a tragic poet-manqué, adopted in his dialogues an ironic, if not exactly skeptical, distance from myth that’s lasted as a mode in the arts and philosophy to the present day, source of both controversy and continuity.
Ragged Wing has produced a half dozen shows, distinguishing itself in two older pieces meant for physical theater, Richard Schechner’s The Serpent and Andre Gregory’s Alice in Wonderland—maybe best of all, directed by Sass and featuring a ubiquitous Davis and an elusive Shneiderman—and Davis’ staging of The Tempest, with an exceptional Amy Sass as Ariel.
All three bring their different sensibilities and a terrific sense of dedication, concentration and presence to So Many Ways to Kill a Man, the kind of collaborative show that could fulfill their talent as a troupe. Hopefully, they’ll continue to develop it further, as a work-in-progress. The necessary complications of the first act could be both smoothed and fleshed out. Psychologizing tragic figures—conjuring up motivation, neurosis, guilt from mythic directness and poetic ambiguity—can quickly slide into sentimental kitsch, a morass that Mourning Becomes Electra willingly indulged in (not without humor) and which Godard satirized in passing with Contempt. But Ragged Wing’s really onto something very theatrical in the fullest sense of the word, something they could take all the way, which seems to be what they’ve always been about.
SO MANY WAYS TO KILL A MAN
Presented by Ragged Wing Ensemble at 8 p.m. Thursday–Saturday through Oct. 24 at Metal Shop Theater, 2425 Stuart St. (at the back of Willard School). $15-$30, sliding scale. (800) 838-3006. www.raggedwing.org.