Review: ‘The Oresteia’

A fat lady does sing (more than once) toward the end, but that's hardly the only operatic aspect to Berkeley Rep's current "The Oresteia." The three-play Aeschylus cycle emerges as a two-evening epic whose musicality and physical scale showcase the company's long-awaited "second stage."

A fat lady does sing (more than once) toward the end, but that’s hardly the only operatic aspect to Berkeley Rep’s current “The Oresteia.” Co-directed by Rep artistic director Tony Taccone and opera/legit helmer Stephen Wadsworth, the three-play Aeschylus cycle translated by Robert Fagles emerges as a two-evening epic whose musicality, stylized ensemble movement and imposing physical scale showcase the expansive possibilities of the company’s long-awaited “second stage” — a proscenium house that’s actually larger (by 200 seats) than the two-decade-old thrust one next door. Yet while it provides a suitably ambitious christening for the space in theatrical terms, this “Oresteia” is hit and miss in dramatic engagement.

Perhaps the excitement of showing off that new space — a terrifically sightlined, two-balcony auditorium with no seats more than 50 feet from the 80-foot-high stagefront — pixillated judgment in an endeavor that required maximum creative cogency. These four hours are often striking on one level or another. But the bold impressions made by individual design and (less often) performance strokes never cohere into an organic whole. Each time some stirring effect suggests cumulative power might begin building at last, the production changes tactics again — most confusedly in a final, semi-comedic stretch that seems wholly at odds with the preceding 3-1/2 hours.

Before that point a ceremonious gloom prevails, occasionally penetrated by live currents of grief, horror and rage. The latter begin to glimmer only well into an intermissionless first evening’s “Agamemnon,” in which Clytaemnestra’s (Robynn Rodriguez) welcome home for her titular husband (Derrick Lee Weeden, more blustery than commanding) after 10 years’ Trojan Warring is somewhat colored by his prior sacrifice of daughter Iphigenia (Myla Balugay). Believing the House of Atreus already tarnished by this and other trespasses, she poisons the returned King of Argos, an action that turns their surviving children against her.

Staged against Christopher Barreca’s single-unit set, a grim courtyard somberly lit by Peter Maradudin, this initial section underlines Clytaemnestra’s impolitic if understandable woman-scorned actions in sympathetic terms. “And that is what a woman has to say,” she says repeatedly, seizing the reins of power after a decade’s helplessness. But despite some potent moments, Rodriguez doesn’t communicate her pain in terms nearly as vivid as two more fleetingly deployed thesps: First an impassioned L. Peter Callender as the herald who precedes the king with several pages of preparatory bad news, then Francesca Faridany as Cassandra, the Trojan princess brought home as a spoil of war. The bleak prophecies (“The house breathes with murder… I smell the open grave”) she delivers before suffering the queen’s fatal hospitality are delivered with mesmerizing, wraithlike intensity.

The directors’ tactics here intrigue at times but seldom mesh; one senses an awkward push-pull between Taccone’s penchant for gritty modernism and the extreme stylization Wadsworth pulled off most memorably in the Rep’s “Ideal Husband” and “Triumph of Love” productions. One minute we’re witnessing pagan primal-screamage a la vintage Tom O’Horgan, the next metronomic line readings and mannered Grecian-urn gestures. Flashbacks and visions staged atop the Atreus manse’s roof are problematic: There’s something inherently silly about seeing Iphigenia’s death reenacted on Santa Claus’ usual landing surface. In synch with Larry Delinger’s all-percussion score, this “Agamemnon” text aims for the mounting dread of an approaching death knell. Too often it seems simply arrhythmic.

Both musical and movement vocabularies grow busier — still to mixed results — in “The Libation Bearers,” which finds Orestes (a middling Duane Boutte) and Electra (Miriam Laube) plotting to avenge their late father by destroying mom and her new ruling consort Aegithus (Jonathan Haugen). The eerie silence in which those deaths take place is arresting; Rodriguez ditto, as paranoia and panic bring her Clytaemnestra into sharp focus.

But again, uneven acting, directorial and design decisions clash more than they coalesce. This section’s little-changed set (outside the house this time, around Agamemnon’s tomb) is pushed forward so far it limits playspace, while choreography for the Chorus (played throughout the cycle by a variably numbered ensemble often speaking in unison) at times verges on beached water-balletics. There’s also a sufi-dancing interlude. Why ask why?

Nonetheless, Wadsworth and Eustis save a lion’s share of left-field theatrical conceits for this second evening’s post-intermission “Eumenides.” The rapid shifts between scenic tableaux after somewhat monochromatic parts one and two bear a distinctly operatic feel, especially when the Pythia (Angelina Reaux) begins emitting ululations simultaneously recalling Yma Sumac, Cathy Berberian and Dame Judith Anderson.

Now Orestes faces the gods’ judgment, with Apollo (Haugen, limning a Dudley Do-Right with muscles) as his defense lawyer, six mummy-wrapped Furies (costumer Anita Yavich’s brightest stroke) as an angry prosecutorial mass, and Michelle Morain’s slightly goofy girl-jock Athena as wise arbitrator. When matricide avenging maternal fratricide avenging paternal infanticide is the crime … well, maybe the human race wasn’t such a good idea after all.

Following so much emotionally heated mayhem — even if the majority of it takes place offstage, always a hurdle to staging Greek drama — the directors seem relieved at an opportunity to mix in some humor and fantasticism along with the eventually balming call to reason Athena offers all concerned. Still, their long final sequence confounds as much as it amuses. The semi-satirical portraiture of gods and Furies seems half-hearted, not to mention a bit incongruous; when audience members are dragged onstage to mix with now street-clothed actors as a “jury,” every hoary “classic” courtroom drama gets dragged on in memory as well.

Perhaps it’s just too cynical a moment in American politics to buy the point (in favor of inclusion, compromise and, yes, democracy) that Messrs. Taccone & Wadsworth are making. Or maybe it’s that “The Oresteia” either needs to be set circa 1200 B.C. or uniformly updated — not a little of each.

That said, this ambitious undertaking is always watchable, never quite ridiculous or dull despite occasional threats from either side. Fagles’ accessible, often pungent translation should prove quite sturdy enough to serve other, future interpreters. No doubt Berkeley Rep’s new Roda Theatre, too, still has its best shows ahead.

The Oresteia

Berkeley Repertory Theater/Roda Theater, Berkeley, CA; 600 seats; $51 top


A Berkeley Repertory Theater presentation of the plays by Aeschylus, translated by Robert Fagles. Directed by Tony Taccone and Stephen Wadsworth.


Sets, Christopher Barreca; costumes, Anita Yavich; lighting, Peter Maradudin; music, Larry Delinger; sound, Matthew Spiro; dramaturg, Luan Schooler; movement director, Penny Hutchinson; fight consultant, Derrick Lee Weeden; voice/text coach, Nancy Benjamin; stage manager, Michael Suenkel. Opened, reviewed March 14, 21, 2001. Running time: 4 HOURS.


With: Myla Balugay, Duane Boutte, L. Peter Callender, Frank Corrado, Francesca Faridany, Christopher Froh, Jonathan Haugen, Penny Hutchinson, Miriam Laube, Sharon Lockwood, Michelle Morain, Barbara Oliver, Angelina Reaux, Robynn Rodriguez, W. Francis Walters, Derrick Lee Weeden, Michael Wiles.
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