The Getty Villa’s outdoor presentation of “Agamemnon,” part one of the Oresteia trilogy, mightily meets the two main challenges of staging Aeschylus and his Greek brethren for a modern audience. Helmer Stephen Wadsworth clarifies the backstory and relationships so we can follow the action; and this production plays its titanic conflicts on a fundamentally human level, so we can care. This would be a wonderful introduction to the classic drama for young and old alike.
Covering up the Roman facade at the rear of the Villa’s stone amphitheater is a weathered, blood-red stone wall with candle sconces and a heavy double door up center. (It’s presumably conceived by Wadsworth and “design associate” Tom Lynch and executed by associate Terry Bend, but no matter; there’s credit enough to go around).
From the way characters stare at, touch and embrace that wall, we instantly understand the unhappy House of Atreus isn’t just the generational line of cursed relatives; it’s also the building itself, a symbol treasured by the people. And things are clearly very, very bad there.
The Trojan War has dragged on for 10 years, but the house curse dates back over generations of one-upping atrocities and betrayals. (The backstory is enacted in mime for our benefit, the figures playing across our eyes just as the mythic figures doubtless played across the ancient audience’s imaginations.)
Inciting incident for the current action occurred a decade ago, when King Agamemnon (Delroy Lindo) sacrificed daughter Iphigenia (Kathryne Dora Brown) to gain favorable winds from Mt. Olympus. Now he’s returning in triumph, but to daughter Electra (Bellina Logan) and Queen Clytaemnestra (Tyne Daly), the infanticide was only yesterday.
The stage is set for clashes of vengeance and mercy, law and ethics, complicated by the complicity of Aegisthus (Timothy V. Murphy), the queen’s lover. Wadsworth directs Daly — whose every expression exudes two or three different scary emotions — and Murphy (ever-watchful until he sees his chance to step forward) as a completely understandable pair of conspirators ready to exploit legitimate grievance in the service of immoral usurpation.
Though Lindo’s too-Freudian, guilt-heavy take weakens him in one-to-one combat with Daly, the fireworks are very much present. These are human hearts, not mythic stick figures, at stake.
Cast’s prodigious physicality permeates the blood-soaked stone circular state. They evoke the timelessness of the tale through ritual incantations to the gods, without long forgoing basically realistic conversational conventions.
The backless benches are painful after a while (how did the ancients stand it?), but the drama will enthrall all but the least sturdy backs.
Bruno Louchouarn’s ethereal music carries its doom-laden warnings from afar, as if wafting in from Troy — which in a sense, of course, it has.
No amount of urging respect for neighborhood quiet at 10 p.m. curtails departing playgoers from debating play’s moral and ethical issues, even if unaware of how much worse things will get in the two remaining plays. After 2,500 years, Aeschylus has lost none of his power to frighten, appall and provoke.