Constellation Theatre: The Oresteia
Constellation Theatre, finishing up its first year of production, has certainly found its own spot in the landscape of Washington theatre. Director Allison Arkell Stockman is drawn to large works of story-telling, employing all aspects of the theatrical arts. Currently Constellation is presenting its largest effort yet, The Oresteia. Stockman has taken Aeschylus’s trilogy and condensed it into a single night of theatre.
Agamemnon, King of Argos, in preparation for fighting in the Trojan War, sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia. Agamemnon’s wife, Clytaemnestra is horrified at the act, and while Agamemnon is off in battle, she plans his murder. When Agamemnon returns from the war, she murders him, along with his concubine, the seer Cassandra. Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus then rule Argos.
Driven by a nightmare, Clytaemnestra sends libation bearers to the grave of Agamemnon. There her daughter Elektra discovers a lock of hair, having been left at the grave by her brother Orestes. Orestes had been sent away since infancy for safety, but hearing of his father’s death, returns to Argos to enact revenge. Orestes kills both Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus.
Orestes is then tormented by the Furies, spirits that avenge patricide and matricide. Orestes appeals to Apollo and Athena for intervention. Athena stages a trial. The jury is split, and Athena breaks the tie on Orestes’ side. The Furies are furious, but Athena appeases them by promising them respect and power from the people of Athens, and renames them the Eumenides (“The Kindly Ones”).
Stockman uses a lot of elements to tell the story. She fills the stage with people; the cast numbers thirty. The music, composed and performed by Tom Teasley, does at time drown out the actors, but at other times it beautifully sets the mood. The audience is privy to scenes of death and violence, traditionally occurring offstage in Greek drama, via screens creating the walls of the palace of Argos.
When you condense three plays into one, instead of having a single leading role, you end up with several supporting characters. Most notable of these are Nanna Ingvarsson, who is a steely Clymtaemnestra, Ron Ward, who plays Aegisthus with an appropriately swaggering arrogance, and Nick DePinto and Misty Demory, who are a very stately Apollo and Athena. The strength of the leading actors is the gusto with which they perform, the weakness is their lack of subtlety.
The focus of the evening is on the chorus instead of on the individual. The production is rocky at the beginning, where the male chorus dominates. The members of the female chorus are just more successful at navigating the demands of singing, chanting, speaking in unison, and performing choreographed movement. The production attains its high point in the third section of the piece, when the female chorus appears as the furies, pursuing Orestes to the end. The actors are energetic and exciting.
Through June 1st