Who would have guessed that the season’s most prominent playwright in the nation’s capital would be Sophocles? Two major D.C. theaters, Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theater, have opened their schedules with new productions that combine several classic tragedies by the playwright and some of his compatriots. Both are entertaining and accessible to modern audiences.
Add it up and there’s enough murder, mayhem and agony here to last a lifetime. And sadly, the rare presentation of classic Greek tragedy seems eerily appropriate for these tense and tragic times.
The Shakespeare Theater’s offering is “The Oedipus Plays,” a single-evening adaptation of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” “Oedipus at Colonus” and “Antigone.” Arena has mounted “Agamemnon and His Daughters,” a new adaptation by Kenneth Cavander that assembles six plays by Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides to present the complete legend of King Agamemnon and his three daughters.
Michael Kahn, the Shakespeare Theater’s busy a.d. (he’s also director of drama at Juilliard), adapted recent translations of the three classics by Nicholas Rudall. He adds a twist by staging the marathon tragedy in an imaginary ancient Africa, assembling an all-black cast.
The production is grand and imposing. Action moves briskly throughout, thanks to judicious editing, but retains the look and feel of a classical production. Major collaborators include composer Baikida Carroll and choreographher Marlies Yearby. Carroll has written an intriguing, melancholy score that relies heavily on African drumbeats and unconventional instruments, while Yearby stresses bold tribal dance movements for the chorus. Set designer Charles McClennahan has fashioned a box set dominated by a large door that is all dressed in browns and golds to match Toni-Leslie James’ flowing costumes.
Avery Brooks, in the lead role, runs the gamut from proud and authoritative king in “Rex” to disheveled blind wanderer in “Colonus.” In general, he pulls off the assignment, especially when his deep voice is put to use, but Brooks’ range is limited. More convincing is Earle Hyman as the prophet Teiresias. Other strong perfs come from Petronia Paley, Cynthia Martells, Michael Genet and Lance Williams.
At Arena Stage, artistic director Molly Smith offers a decidedly less formal approach to the legend of Agamemnon and his family. Cavander’s adaptation provides the script for this saga that encompasses a period of 20 years.
The play opens with Euripides’ “Iphigenia at Aulis,” in which Agamemnon (Jack Willis) is told he must sacrifice his daughter to gain favorable winds needed for the fleet to sail off to defeat the enemy at Troy. Many agonies follow in a convoluted tale that involves remaining daughter Elektra (Natascia Diaz) and others. Without exception, the principals take a larger-than-life approach to their roles.
Arena’s movable circular stage is put to full use as the energetic production unfolds. With insertions of modern dialogue, a minimum of anguish and wailing, a raccoon-eyed Elektra and an often camped-up chorus, the three-hour play is most inviting for the masses. Purists will not be pleased.