“The Oresteia” has cracked the backs of more than a few directors looking to expand their Greek repertoire. Leave it to the Actors’ Gang, under a trio of fertile-minded helmers, to adroitly blend the lyrical tragedy of the classic cycle with the apocalyptic punch of two postmodern scribes. Production, which is company’s first in its new home on Santa Monica Boulevard, deserves decent drachmas for its limited run.
Building a heady rep under Tim Robbins’ artistic direction, troupe offers world premieres to Charles L. Mee’s adaptation of Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon” and Ellen McLaughlin’s version of Sophocles’ “Electra.”
Under the direction of Brian Kulick and Oskar Eustis, respectively, both pieces offer intense, foreboding, typically nuclear-age approaches to the Trojan War tales: Soldiers dress in World War I fatigues, the Greek chorus wears black.
Only David Schweizer’s lively gameshow staging of Mee’s adaptation of Euripides’ “Orestes” elevates the evening from another postmodern depiction of historical figures with black sunglasses.
The complete three-hours-plus piece relies only cursorily on the Trojan War tale of returning conqueror Agamemnon, who is slain by adulterous wife Clytemnestra. A decade or so later, daughter Electra talks her brother Orestes into killing the widowed mother as retribution for knifing Dad.
Those details are about as far as the trilogy remains true to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
Mee borrows from a list of arguably incompatible sources: Thucydides, mass murderer John Wayne Gacy, the Book of Revelations, Bret Easton Ellis, Vogue, Soap Opera Digest, philosopher Hannah Arendt. McLaughlin’s “Electra” spins references to vodka, Ritz crackers, Jell-O, cocktail parties, stock markets and train wrecks.
The pop culture references play for easy laughs, but clearly Mee and McLaughlin aim higher than mere accessibility. The tragic Trojan tale turns into a 21st-century rehash of one of literature’s top-flight dysfunctional families.
Theatrically, the pieces are uneven in tone and approach and might have benefited from a single director. While “Agamemnon” and “Electra” labor under heavy artistic hands with dark foreboding overtones, “Orestes” spins in much zanier direction.
Set in a hospital for criminally insane, “Orestes” plays more like Dennis Potter’s “Singing Detective,” with thesps breaking into an upbeat Karen Carpenter song or a pornographic diatribe at the drop of a hypodermic.
Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus surfaces as a smarmy emcee (“Helen and I are really glad to be here”), while Helen of Troy dons a green Jackie O. hat, and discourses on beauty tips.
The tonal change saves the play from a descent into an angst-driven tedium; Schweizer’s staging, frantic and frenzied, wakes things up.
Designer Mark Wendland provides inventive sets. In “Agamemnon” he covers the stage with open-faced hardcover books, leaving nimble thesps to dance lightly over the pages. While the image might be an ironic, unintended metaphor for Mee’s free use of Aeschylus, it still provides a gripping visual in the small warehouse of a theater. “Electra” plays on a stage full of dirt and “Orestes” weaves in and out of a maze of plastic curtains and hospital beds.
Shannon Holt creates, you’ll excuse the expression, an electrifying Electra. Gnashing teeth and violently yanking at her roped foot, she spits each line with seething bile at her complacent mother. Insane or simply bitterly unhappy, Holt leaves the aud unsure where she’s headed but makes it hard to resist watching her get there.
Clare Wren’s Clytemnestra successfully bridges a gap between her seductive temptress in the first act and the overbearing middle-aged matriarch in the second. James Parks offers a bombastic, tightly wound Orestes, who will crash turbulently against the furniture one moment and collapse in a heap the next.
Lighting by Kevin Adams is impressionistic but too often leaves speaking actors in the dark, making an already difficult text even harder to penetrate.