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Mediterranean Spring 

Why are Bay Area stages so classically minded this season?

Wednesday, Mar 14 2001
When Tony Taccone spoke last week at the ribbon-cutting for his company's new auditorium -- the Berkeley Rep's expensive Roda Theater -- he complained, briefly, about all the journalists who keep asking why he picked the Oresteia for its inaugural show. To settle the matter, he said, "It's a big play. With really, really big ideas in it about democracy and responsibility and how people can change. About the fortitude that people have to have in the face of trauma. And I think the world is facing all that right now."

Taccone is the Berkeley Rep's artistic director. Grand, vague statements are part of his job. But he kept things brief and then introduced Derek Lee Weeden, who plays Agamemnon in the show. Weeden used a bronze-handled Greek sword to cut the fat purple ribbon, and stood there with the weapon lifted in triumph while photographers focused their cameras. Then everyone filed in for snacks.

The looming and obvious reason Taccone chose the Oresteia cycle to baptize the new stage could have been uttered by Sir Edmund Hillary. Aeschylus' three-tragedy foundation of Western theater is always there. "How many times in your life do you get to open a new building?" Taccone asked rhetorically, in a phone interview. "So what do you do? You go to your bookshelf, and you say, "OK ... Hamlet. Cherry Orchard.' None of it was reading to me, none of it was landing in my heart. But the Oresteia kept landing. And when you really get the Oresteia you think, "Oh my God, this is a magnificent, wildly important piece of work.' And then it started to make a lot of sense in terms of, like, going back to the beginning."

Taccone's ambitious production (which he co-directs with Stephen Wadsworth) also kicks off a minor Greek revival in the Bay Area. From this week through June, accidentally or not, five Greek or Greek-inspired shows will open on stages in Berkeley and San Francisco. There's always a background buzz of classical material in any lively theater scene, but this amounts to a glut. The Rep will stage not just the Oresteia but also Charles Mee's Big Love, based on Aeschylus' Suppliant Women. Crowded Fire will do a musical called The Trojan Women: A Love Story, also by Mee, in June. The Shotgun Players will tour Berkeley parks with Iphigenia at Aulis in the summer, and Art Street Theater just opened an original play called Io: Princess of Argos!, about Prometheus' confidante and Zeus' lover, who was turned by Hera into a raving, gadfly-addled cow.

Art Street's artistic director, Mark Jackson, wrote the script. His Io is a proto-activist, posing questions that irritate the gods. His Aeschylus adaptation from last year, Messenger #1, dealt (hilariously) with class and gender roles in a democratic state. Jackson makes political hay out of the ancient scripts, but he also likes them for the very reason they've lasted more than 2,000 years.

"They're very focused," he says. "They take one simple thing, let's say pride, and explode it. ... That kind of economy seems to have gotten away from us. So, speaking from the point of view of an artist, it's a way to get inside of that and work with that kind of economy. We've always tried to do that, in the Art Street shows, with our staging and whatnot, see how much we can do with very little."

Jackson and his partner, Beth Wilmurt, have studied various methods of sculpting an actor's movement -- from the Viewpoints technique of experimental theater's Anne Bogart to the Biomechanics system of Russian avant-garde director Vsevolod Meyerhold -- and their plays feel tightly, expressively choreographed. In Messenger, says Jackson, the actors sometimes "had a very flat, hieroglyphic look." That was Meyerhold's influence. "It's a way of making a more dynamic picture for the audience. It's also a very economical way of moving, so we found that it applied to the Greek stories pretty well."

Io is a musical -- new territory for Art Street -- and a musical comedy based on classical drama might remind local audiences of another Bay Area playwright, namely John Fisher, author of Medea, the Musical.

Any influence?

"I've actually never seen a John Fisher play," says Jackson. "From what I've heard, Io's not as campy. But it does take place in a hallucinated cabaret in her head."

Patrick Dooley decided that 2001 would be a convenient year for his troupe, the Shotgun Players, to follow the Berkeley Rep's Oresteia with a free-in-the-park treatment of Iphigenia at Aulis. Both productions revolve around the Trojan War. (The Oresteia deals with Agamemnon's brutal homecoming from Troy; Iphigenia shows him struggling to get there in the first place.) "It wouldn't hurt, people already having a foot up on our story," says Dooley. "I'm assuming [the Rep's] gonna sell a shitload of tickets."

Since 1997, the Shotgun Players have toured at least one free show per summer across the park lawns and amphitheaters of the East Bay. Most have been Shakespeare plays. All have attracted mixed and lively audiences. "Pets, dogs, everybody -- they're sitting there for two and a half, three hours, and they're eating it up," says Dooley. "I thought if we can do the same thing with a Greek tragedy, if we can actually perform it in the kind of venue it was written for -- these things were written to be performed outdoors -- I thought, what a great hoop to jump through."

Dooley (like most directors) finds natural parallels between the wider culture and his upcoming show. Euripides' tragedy has Agamemnon preparing to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to lure a favorable, Troyward wind from the gods. "There's something about Agamemnon wanting so hard to satisfy the rest of Greece," says Dooley, "and not giving a fuck about his own wife and child, that for me is a harrowing reflection of our own [society]. I don't know if it's the same outside of America, but we don't seem to be a place that respects community over fame and glory."

Crowded Fire Artistic Director Rebecca Novick felt attracted to Charles Mee's Trojan Women because of similar themes. The original play shows the grieving mothers and widows of Troy thirsting for vengeance. Mee's play, says Novick, "is very much about revenge and continuing the cycle of war, and how you can interrupt it. He mixes in all kinds of texts from other wars: There's a Hiroshima survivor, some stuff about the Holocaust -- and to top it off, it's a musical. It's a great, theatrical stab at making it as big as maybe it was for the Greeks."

But Novick says she had no particular reason for putting the show on this spring. It's just a happy coincidence, one of those alignments of circumstance that might have impressed an ancient soothsayer.


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