As Greek tragedies go, “Orestes” stands apart from the norm thanks to its quirky blend of misery and mirth, and its unexpected ending at the unseen hands of Apollo. With this new adaptation, co-produced by D.C.’s Folger Theater and the Two River Theater Company of Red Bank, N.J., writer Anne Washburn has tweaked the play’s diverse dimensions into a highly accessible composite, while artfully inserting a delicious element of funkiness. For theaters seeking to introduce new audiences to the classics, it makes an inviting entry point.
Washburn (“The Internationalist”) worked with several translations of the ancient play by Euripides to create a new version she felt would better suit contemporary auds. It hews tightly to the plot while embellishing the tragedy with ingratiating humor and modern touches, wisely avoiding the farce that might be suggested by the revised title.
Two River a.d. and frequent Folger director Aaron Posner saw in Washburn’s 5-year-old script an enchanting co-production vehicle, his first since “Macbeth” two years ago. Assembling a first-rate cast and crew, he helms the proceedings with a sly hand that maximizes the play’s quixotic mood swings while also honoring such themes as morality, justice and divine will.
The cast is led by Jay Sullivan as Orestes and Holly Twyford as his sister Electra. The two royals are holed up in their palace in Argos, awaiting their gruesome demise at the hands of bloodthirsty locals after Orestes killed his mother Clytemnestra. He had done so on orders from Apollo to avenge Clytemnestra’s murder of their father, King Agamemnon.
That’s surely not the usual grist for comedy, but an early clue to the irreverent doings ahead comes during Twyford’s opening-scene soliloquy. The character lays out the play’s convoluted backdrop, the seriousness of her plight and the anguish of her tormented brother, asleep behind her. She is soon joined by an exuberant female chorus who she quickly hushes to silence, requiring them to comically tiptoe around the stage.
And what a chorus it is, this perky and insightful band of women dispensing advice, asides and sarcasm in delightfully discordant melodies composed by James Sugg. They shift from melancholy to goofiness in practically the same breath, infusing the production with both spirit and depth.
Granted, it’s a little difficult to take the play’s sobering aspects too seriously when feet are so firmly planted in both ancient and modern worlds. The arrival of Helen of Troy dressed as a haughty vacationer fresh off the cruise ship (the versatile Chris Genebach) is one such example. “The woman is a radioactive packet,” observes Orestes of the uninvited Helen, in one of many anachronistic comments that pepper the play.
Droll humor abounds in musical lyrics and dialogue, invariably when least expected. Says one character in understatement to the guilt-wracked duo: “You and your brother set a bad precedent for arguments between parents and children.” Yet minutes later, the characters resume wrestling with the concept of justice amid the conflicting laws of mortals and the dictates of the gods.
Also humorous are Jessica Ford’s inventive costumes, blending ancient and modern. Perhaps the best is the natty blue suit, official-looking arm band and aviator shades that adorn Genebach’s Menelaus, the rich uncle just back from Troy who spurns his desperate nephew in his hour of need. Just one look tells you this was going to happen.
Another nifty touch are the stones that line the perimeter of Daniel Conway’s palace garden set. They serve as both a playful prop and a macabre reminder of the death by stoning that presumably awaits Orestes and Electra.
Yet the most arresting touch of all is the sonorous voice of Apollo arriving deus ex machina to bring the proceedings to a resounding close. Thank you, Lynn Redgrave.