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Aeschylus Overwhelmed 

Berkeley Rep's Oresteia is gorgeous to look at, but its spots of good acting get drowned by the staging

Wednesday, Mar 28 2001
According to a legend, two years after The Oresteia premiered at the Theater of Dionysus, Aeschylus was killed by a tortoise. An eagle had caught the tortoise and wanted to crack open its shell. Mistaking a bald man's head for a rock, the eagle dropped its prey, from a great height, on history's first genius of tragic drama. Aeschylus fell dead in the streets of Sicily, aged about 69.

It may not be true, but the fable humanizes him. The simple fact that someone has tried to explain the man's death with an unlikely story about a bird suggests that Aeschylus wasn't the demigod so many people imagine. Rather, it leaves an image of someone like Wallace Shawn walking around in a toga. Stephen Wadsworth and Tony Taccone, unfortunately, have missed this ordinary aspect of Aeschylus in directing the Berkeley Rep's Oresteia. The ambitious three-tragedy cycle inaugurates the new Roda Theater -- and shows off its expensive sound system, lights, and 80-foot fly tower -- but forgets to be anything so humble and human as a play.

The new space is impressive, but it dominates The Oresteia like a Wagnerian soprano. Sometimes you sense that the Rep is using the production to present the theater, instead of the other way around. For example, in the middle of opening night for The Eumenides (the third in the Oresteia cycle), people clapped at a stunning scene change. Now it's true that the soundless conversion of a stage from a gloomy temple at Delphi to a grand, sun-shot corner of the Parthenon, with a view of the ocean between two massive white columns, is pretty fucking cool. But I think people clapped because their minds were not entirely on the show.

Some of this is Aeschylus' fault. His choruses can be tedious -- in particular the chorus for Agamemnon (first in the cycle), which has a lot of work to do. Before the action starts we need to hear about the family curse, the Trojan War, and Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia, in order to understand his wife Clytaemnestra's treachery. Taccone and Wadsworth help the audience by showing Iphigeneia's sacrifice in a potent dream image while the chorus rambles on; this image repeats itself at the end, when Agamemnon's slaughtered body is rolled out on a pallet. Visually, this whole Oresteia is strong, and the directors do an especially good job in Agamemnon of pacing the inevitable, erotic murder of a homecoming warlord. But they also tart up the chorus with arm gestures to the gods, sudden kneelings, arrow-firing postures, and defiant fists that don't help us follow the story. The chorus also tends to overact, in loud voices, as if shouting might keep us from falling asleep.

Robynn Rodriguez does a magnificent job as Clytaemnestra: Her speeches are thunderous as well as honest. In treachery, she says, "I am as practiced as I am in dyeing bronze. And bronze cannot be dyed -- except in blood." L. Peter Callender also electrifies the theater as the Herald, describing the long days of heat and cold during the siege of Troy. "I see the Aegean heaving with a great bloom of corpses," he says. "Greeks. The pick of a generation." Callender should have had a larger role -- maybe the chorus leader or Agamemnon himself -- because he invests Robert Fagles' translation with so much unforced feeling.

Derrick Lee Weeden, as Agamemnon, looks and sounds like a powerful Greek general, but he overuses his booming voice. When he arrives in the courtyard on a hand-drawn chariot, Clytaemnestra strews his path into the house with crimson silks. Agamemnon protests this treatment by giving a speech against pomp -- but Weeden gives it pompously. It might make an interesting ironic point in another play, but not here. Weeden is too full of gas.

Agamemnon comprises the first night in the Rep's play cycle; The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides together make up the second night. Audience chatter at the end of night two sounded pleased with all the action; in that round there's less talk from the chorus and more drama onstage. But to me it's a weaker show than Agamemnon because the second two plays lack a strong actor in any central role. Rodriguez's Clytaemnestra holds night one together, but Duane Boutté's Orestes can't cohere night two. The one bright moment of honest acting in night two comes from Barbara Oliver, as Orestes' nurse in The Libation Bearers. "A baby's soft insides have a will of their own," she says, reminiscing tenderly in the belief that Orestes has died. Oliver makes her simple speech beautiful and even funny, but the moment is short.

In The Libation Bearers, a chorus of women mourning for Agamemnon (carrying urns of honeyed oil to pour on his grave) encourages Orestes to avenge his father's death by killing his mom. He does so -- with support from Electra, his sister. When they close the vow of vengeance, brother and sister karate-chop the ground and raise their arms slowly, in a strange gesture that may be the worst example of Penny Hutchinson's tacky movement direction. They look like superheroes. I wouldn't have been surprised if Electra had shouted, "Wonder Twin powers -- activate!"

Duane Boutté does find a fierce groove after the murder: Holding a bloody sword over Clytaemnestra, Orestes is triumphant as well as grief-wracked, and Boutté moves through a fragile ecstasy of murder that ends in a vision of guilt. "I killed my mother," he begins, "not with a little justice," but the feeling of triumph is unstable. Finally he describes -- vividly, honestly -- an oncoming flock of Gorgons who want to avenge the death. These are the Furies, called the Eumenides in their merciful form, who will be the chorus for the final play.

The Eumenides is both the best and worst segment of this Oresteia. The set changes are remarkable and the scenes are dramatic and clear, but the acting rides an edge of farce that almost undermines the production. In The Eumenides we watch the cycle of vengeance cursing Orestes' family end in a courtroom drama presided over by the goddess Athena. Michelle Morain plays her as a modern, wiseass voice of reason. She arrives in a ridiculous outfit -- tall-fringed helmet, white toga -- to find the Furies trying to drown Orestes in her temple. "What are you doing?" she essentially says to the writhing, snakelike creatures, who utter lines like "We are the everlasting children of the night." The comedy is intentional at first, but later Morain comes across like Xena talking to a family of lizards.

Athena organizes a trial, and before a jury in modern dress Orestes is absolved. Aeschylus' point was that the structures of Athenian democracy broke a long cycle of blood lust and vengeance and made Athens merciful, civilized, rational, and great. Taccone's and Wadsworth's point is that the structures of American democracy (such as the jury system) have made America great. It's not an original point, or even airtight, but Morain's Athena makes it ringingly. The snakelike Furies are converted to Eumenides, and the show ends, literally, on a high note, sung by the impressive Angelina Reáux.

Reáux, as the priestess of Apollo, and Robynn Rodriguez, who returns as Clytaemnestra's ghost, give the strongest performances in The Eumenides, but they're not important enough characters to hold it all together. Michelle Morain's wisecracking Athena is funny but not quite integrated; her humor isn't under control. These clanking notes -- like so much of this Oresteia -- come close to dropping a big turtle on Aeschylus, killing him right there on the stage.


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