Oh, beware the classic tragedy described as “influential.” Quake in your boots at the phrase “rarely produced.” The ancient Roman revenge tragedy “Thyestes” well deserves both those tag-lines. It’s an important historical relic — Shakespeare did wonders with the same material in “Titus Andronicus.” It’s also undeniably dull. And while helmer Joanne Akalaitis nobly adds dosages of post-modern flair to this exercise in theatrical archaeology at Chicago’s Court Theater, she can breathe only sporadic life into Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s static speech-fest.
Seneca manages to flatten one of the more cringe-inducing plots in the dramatic canon. “Thyestes” involves that most troubled family, the House of Atreus. Brothers Atreus and Thyestes were supposed to share power, but Thyestes stole both the crown and Atreus’ wife.
In Seneca’s play, Atreus (Mick Weber) invites brother Thyestes (James Krag) for a dinner, where Thyestes unknowingly eats his own sons.
Akalaitis, former artistic director at the Public Theater, invests the piece with a stylized contemporary panache, while she avoids cluttering the basic elements. Kaye Voyce’s set and costumes use bold colors and a mishmash of modern and classical dress, yet feature a fairly clean design with a central staircase beneath an A-frame silhouette.
Most drastic, and effective, touch, involves two screens in the back: Home movies of Thyestes frolicking in the park with his kids are projected on the screens. The play’s only truly jolting moment comes when Akalaitis shows an image of a nearly empty food bowl, around the same time the title character discovers the familial ingredients of his meal.
While Akalaitis lets the actors play a bit with the speaking style early on, Weber’s demented but still psychologically recognizable Atreus fills his speeches with sarcasm and offbeat changes of direction. The chorus of two — a woman and a boy — gesticulate as they speak. But, unfortunately, the production still falls quickly into rote rhythms, and, while Caryl Churchill’s translation adds elegance and clarity to Seneca’s verse, this remains rough going for the 70-minute running time.
Ultimately, Akalaitis just doesn’t go deep enough with “Thyestes.” This is a play in need of even more radical treatment to awake it from its undramatic slumber. While the visuals achieve occasional potency, overall the production feels delicate rather than gruesome, the emotions painted on rather than felt.
Perhaps theatrical gratification need not be instant, and the Court audience will benefit from this academic education when they see “Titus Andronicus,” coming up next at this U. of Chicago-associated theater. After “Thyestes,” they’ll appreciate even more how Shakespeare takes a gory story and gives it dramatic shape and power.