The Oresteia, Shakespeare Theatre Company

Oversimplification is the enemy of discourse, but nevertheless, two things seem true: the Greeks understood how to make theatre that works, and so does Michael Kahn.

Photo of the cast of The Oresteia by Scott Suchman.

To focus on Kahn for a moment, this production of The Oresteia (in a new version by Ellen McLaughlin) is Kahn's final statement in his time leading the Shakespeare Theatre Company as its founder and Artistic Director.  Next year, Simon Godwin steps into the AD role with his first season (though he won't direct for the company until winter 2020), and so throughout the 2018-2019 season, we've been building to this production as Kahn's farewell to STC and his time directing for Washington audiences.  It's a bold choice of material, an epic story that is rarely seen due to the breadth of the material and the demands it makes on actors. Of course, the glory of Greek theatre, like all classical theatre, is that you've never needed pyrotechnics, towering revolving stage pieces, or special effects; you only need excellent actors at the top of their game, capable of conveying all the intricacies and emotions within a complex text, and the right director to bring it off the page, out of the actors, and onto the stage. In short, The Oresteia is the kind of theatre at which Kahn excels, and a wonderful showcase for his particular directorial talents that we will miss in the years to come.

McLaughlin's version of The Oresteia, like Aeschylus before her, tells us the story of the cursed House of Atreus, with additional flavor drawn in from Euripides' take on the subject matter.  For the Greek theatre nerds who might be interested in such things (nb, I can say this because I count myself among them), McLaughlin's script pares down the story to its central beats, streamlining the chorus to create a more consistent group across the story, and removing Aegisthus entirely (a move which I personally celebrate). Through the momentum built over the nearly two and a half hour run time, McLaughlin focuses the story on not just the cycle of violence but the specific culpability of those who enact the violence and those who let it happen, leading the play into its concluding exploration of how we find justice and move forward together. It's a tremendously smart, moving adaptation that I hope has a long life ahead of it in the theatre.

Photo of Kelley Curran as Clytemnestra in The Oresteia by Scott Suchman.

Set and costume designer Susan Hilferty places the action before the House of Atreus itself, looming over all the proceedings, its walls dark and stained. The backbone of the evening is Kelley Curran's Clytemnestra, full of grief and rage and implacable will. It's a mesmerizing portrait of a woman consumed by one act of revenge, even after the act itself is long since committed. Rad Pereira's Electra is likewise entrenched in their character's own grief and conviction, and the different energies that Curran and Pereira bring to their characters is a striking contrast, underscoring the gulf between the mother and child.  The chorus of servants, who occasionally come into specific focus as figures like the Watchman or the Nurse, draws from such a deep talent pool that it can include Helen Carey and Franchelle Stewart Dorn among its ranks, both making a welcome return to STC.

Good theatre stays with us in many ways; through stories that continue to move us across centuries and through theatrical moments that inspire delight, fear, wonder, or self-reflection. As a production unto itself, The Oresteia is a powerful interrogation of violence, revenge, blame, and justice told with great skill. As a final link in a chain of 33 years of artistic vision and leadership in Washington D.C., it's a triumph. Well done, Michael Kahn, and thank you for giving us a classical theatre in our town that will carry on for many more years to come.


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