Review: Ismene (Dream Theatre)

     
     

A marathon of self-indulgence

     
     

Jeremy Menekseoglu as Te in Dream Theatre's Ismene

   
Dream Theatre Company presents
  
  
Ismene
   
   
Written and directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu
at Dream Theatre, 556 W 18th St. (map
through June 5  |  tickets: $15 – $18  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

A good rule of courtesy for Chicago theatre companies to follow ought to be: if a production’s runtime exceeds two hours on a weeknight, there must be some warning of this information somewhere, be it on the theatre company’s website or in the program. In Jeremy Menekseoglu’s at times excruciating three hour long production of Ismene, Dream Theatre makes that information available to no one anywhere. This is a selfish and disrespectful lack of consideration to the Chicago theatergoing community, many who have jobs on weekdays in this blue collar town. Anne Menekseoglu as Ismene in Dream Theatre's "Ismene", written and directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu. (Photo: Giau Truong)Menekseoglu is the playwright, director, sound designer, scenic designer and lead actor in what is ultimately a festival of self indulgence for the artist who holds his audience captive (literally the door to the Pilsen space is locked after the show begins giving patrons a struggle to exit at the two hour intermission mark). While there are several talented actresses involved in Ismene, the script and lack of direction take the life out of their skills with a monotonous overly clichéd meta-theatrical affair.

The evening actually starts out rather interesting with a Circus barker (an intriguing Chad Sheveland) greeting the audience at the door of the storefront lobby along with Thespia (Natalie Breitmeyer), the first member of the chorus (of the Greek variety) to escape and develop individual thoughts. After this brief pre-show we are introduced to Ismene (the very same sister to Antigone). Anna Menekseoglu as the title character in the prologue is captivating, delivering a monologue that is an example of the potential poetic skill of the playwright. She declares that her chorus has died, leaving herself to the decisions of independent will. This concept is interesting enough, but Jeremy Menekseoglu’s script only gets more and more muddled from here allowing the production to slowly spiral downward to a point where nothing can remain compelling or entertaining.

While the audience is still in the front lobby during this pre-show, Erin (a feisty Michelle Apalategui) convinces Ismene to come with her to a school for forgotten girls. At this point the audience is escorted into the larger auditorium space where Menekseoglu has housed his massive set. We learn that the school is run by Procne (played by Rachel Martindale with a captivating vocal quality), who is also known in Greek myth for killing her son and feeding his flesh to her husband. However, if you are unaware of the intricacies of this myth and the tapestry created by her sister Philomena (Alicia Reese), it will all play as just another confounding layer in this dense play. The myth could be seen in a far superior adaptation last year in Red Tape Theatre’s The Love of the Nightingale (our review).

Eventually, the story goes every which way, including the presence of a zombie Greek chorus (which should’ve been a way cooler concept). Jeremy Menekseoglu plays Te, who at first is thought to be one of the chorus. Menekseoglu, while displaying strong physicality, is macabre for the sake of being so and lavishes in it far too much to no effect by kissing, abusing and molesting most of the women throughout. There is a slight parallel throughout the play, which could be focused on further, to fighting breast cancer and rejecting acceptance of your fate. However, Menekseoglu’s actions on stage somewhat contradict the female empowerment message. Also, there is an excess of themes, motifs, characters and plots trying to be tackled to give any one of them their due attention.

         
Alicia Reese as Philomena in Dream Theatre's "Ismene", by Jeremy Menekseoglu Dream Theatre's "Ismene", by Jeremy Menekseoglu Chad Sheveland as The Barker in Dream Theatre's "Ismene", by Jeremy Menekseoglu

It’s undeniable that Menekseoglu and Dream Theatre have an ambitious aesthetic. At times they excel, such as their well received production of Electra (review ★★★½). However, it’s also clear that at times like this they become lost in their vision and become far too precious with each character and aspect of the story. Moments like peering into the audience and contemplating the presence of the audience as voyeurs is a provoking concept the first time, but Menekseoglu takes the convention past resonance by devoting a plethora of time for each character to have this experience. The effect is entirely inward for the actors’ own pleasure and indulgent to the point where the audience is truly delegated to simply being a presence while Menekseoglu and the cast can revel in themselves. The production and script clearly needs a true director keeping the audience in mind and cutting extraneous elements to convey the play and a unified message more successfully.

The evening is packed with tragic stories being revealed endlessly, many with five minute long melancholy monologues to accompany them. The tragedy cannot have any emotional effect after a certain point. Furthermore, Menekseoglu’s distracting and dreary soundtrack is oppressive, forcing the performances to go along at its tedious pace. Near the end of Menekseoglu’s production when Ismene considers gouging her eyes out with her father’s (Oedipus) needles, I couldn’t help but almost relate with her after three hours watching this bloated display of self-serving theatre.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

Annelise Lawson as Iphigenia in Dream Theatre's "Ismene" by Jeremy Menekseoglu

Dream Theatre Company presents Ismene, written and directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu. The show runs through Sunday, June 5th at Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th Street, Chicago. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm Sundays at 7:00 p.m. with a Monday performance on Memorial Day, May 30th at 8pm. Tickets are $15 – $18 and can be reserved by visiting dreamtheatrecompany.com or by calling 773-552-8616.

  
  

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Review: No More Dead Dogs (Griffin Theatre)

  
  

Griffin Theatre focuses on ‘Dead Dog’ fun

  
   

Alex Kyger, Colton Dillion, Cameron Harms, Jeff Duhigg and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

  
Griffin Theatre presents
  
  
No More Dead Dogs
   
Based on novel by Gordon Korman
Adapted by William Massolia
Directed by Dorothy Milne
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Just what is it about children’s literature? On the one hand, classics in the genre can zap heartstrings and endear us to them forever. On the other hand, they, too, fall back on tired formulas that make us wonder what we ever saw in them. Heaven help the public school teacher trying to turn kids onto literature using “age appropriate” work from the 1950s. Wallace Wallace (Ryan Lempka) is just the kind of kid who won’t accept that kind of fodder without blunt and unforgiving commentary. Griffin Theatre’s latest production at Theatre Wit, No More Dead Dogs, follows Wallace’s keen observation that many books for young people, such as “Old Yeller” and “Where the Red Fern Grows”, often have dogs die in them in order to foster some tear-jerking Ellie Reed and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"realization about life for the young reader. (Don’t get us started about Bambi.)

But dead dogs and orphaned deer aside, Griffin’s show, under the easy, swift and agile direction of Dorothy Milne, is a joyous romp for both cast and audience. Co-Artistic Director William Massolia has adapted Gordon Korman’s best-selling comic novel for the stage and his light handling of the ‘tween material usually carries off without a hitch. Wallace, having been lied to so often by his Dad (Jeff Duhigg), simply cannot bring himself to lie about anything, ever—including how much he thinks the book he’s assigned to report, “Old Shep, My Pal”, stinks. Too bad his English teacher, Mr. Fogelman (Jeremy Fisher), can’t accept that his favorite children’s classic may be past its prime. He perpetually puts Wallace in detention until he can write a book report that meets with his approval. What could have been Wallace’s irresistible force running into Fogelman’s immovable object instead morphs into school jock meets the drama club, since Fogelman has adapted “Old Shep, My Pal” for their next production.

By no means is No More Dead Dogs a John Hughes drama. Crafted for younger audiences, the comedy kindly skirts the rancor between high school cliques. Indeed, sub-cultural clashes become virtually negligible once Wallace starts updating Fogelman’s adaptation to something his classmates can relate to. This includes incorporating Vito’s (Joey deBettencourt) garage band, The Dead Mangoes, into the production, much to Fogelman’s chagrin. Lempka strongly shows he knows the importance of being earnest in his humorously straightforward interpretation of Wallace. Fisher, however, almost steals the show, as Fogelman journeys from escalating frustration over his play being usurped, to hip cat on a sax once the band tells him he can join.

          
 Cameron Harms, Jeff Duhigg and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs" Ellie Reed and Joey Eovaldi in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

Ellie Reed and Cameron Harms in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs". (background: The Mangos)

Indeed, much as the play spoofs stale children’s lit, the show looks strangely reminiscent of zany, overtly physical 50s comedy, where every character pretty much stays in type and the show winds up even more crazy from there. Milne’s direction never overplays its hand but always builds the action to its appropriately goofy outcomes. Wallace is solidly flanked by his football buddies and the nerdier drama club, with Joey Eovaldi adding coy and energetic mischief in his role as the younger Dylan. Would that the parts of Rachel (Elllie Reed) and Trudi (Samantha Dubina) could have gone beyond girls-with-crushes-on-the-lead cliches—but at least Reed and Dubin handle their characters sportingly and generously. In fact, one would be hard put to find a more good-natured production, focused solely on dealing out firm and lively fun for the young, than this.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Joey deBettencourt, Erin O'Shea, Morgan Maher and Jeremy Fisher as The Mangos in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

Griffin Theatre’s No More Dead Dogs continues at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, through June 19th, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $25-$30, and can be purchased by phone (773-975-8150) or online.  More info at www.griffintheatre.com.

  
  

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Review: The Grisly/Glorious Adventure (Dream Theatre)

  
  

This adventure still has some growing up to do

  
  

Piglet and Kanga in Dream Theatre's 'The Grisly/Glorious Adventure of Christopher Robin, Winnie-the-Pooh and Billy Moon.

  
Dream Theatre presents
  
The Grisly/Glorious Adventure of Christopher Robin,
Winnie-the-Pooh and Billy Moon
   
Written and Directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu
at Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th (map)
through April 10  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Fame doesn’t make your problems go away. It just makes the problems you have weirder.            –John Waters

Dream Theatre has worked wonders with its revisionist takes on Classical works, such as Jeremy Menekseoglu’s dark and slightly feminist Agon Trilogy, Agamemnon (our review ★★★), Electra (review ★★★½), and Orestes (review ★★½), based on Aeschylus’ Oresteia. But its latest production, The Grisly/Glorious Adventure of Christopher Robin, Winnie-the-Pooh and Billy Moon, seems like a work unveiled too soon. Based on the life story of Christopher Robin Milne, the son of A. A. Milne, who authored the “Winnie-the-Pooh” series, The Grisly/Glorious Adventure . . . depicts the withered, emotional dreamscape of a man who felt robbed in his childhood of the very friends his imagination had created to fill its lonely void. Pooh was, at his essential Mishelle Apalategui as Christopher Robin in Dream Theatre's 'The Grisly/Glorious Adventure of Christopher Robin, Winnie-the-Pooh and Billy Moon. origins, Christopher Robin Milne’s creation but it was his father that gave Winnie-the-Pooh to the world—and bestowed upon the human Christopher Robin an unasked for fame that would cloud his own life in adulthood.

Sadly, the work takes too long to get to the heart of the matter, preferring to dwell overlong in the Hundred Akre Wood of the fictional Christopher Robin (Mishelle Apalategui) where sunshine and innocent security are fading fast. A number of Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh’s (Anna Menekseoglu) friends are dying off mysteriously. They, themselves, hardly know why their friends are dying, nor is the limited philosophy of Owl (Chad Sheveland) of any assistance. One can appreciate Dream Theatre’s mission to immerse the audience in a dreamlike state, as they’ve successfully done many times before. The transformation of the Hundred Akre Wood into a nightmare right out of Sleepy Hollow is certainly the most effective element of the first act. But the dialogue that passes for innocent childhood discussion of the characters’ plight is so clunky and unimaginative, the audience is pushed to a state of apathy over whether the inhabitants of Christopher Robin’s world survive or not. In fact, the prosaic dialogue almost undermines the homespun but effective puppetry of the cast.

Jeremy Menekseoglu as Billy Moon in Dream Theatre's 'The Grisly/Glorious Adventure of Christopher Robin, Winnie-the-Pooh and Billy Moon. Even the scenes between the adult Christopher Robin, under his nickname Billy Moon (Jeremy Menekseoglu), and his Mother (Rachel Martindale) come across as too stiff and stereotypical to spark interest. Distant relationships between parent(s) and child are already dangerously cliché; how to make the audience care about the specific dysfunctional family before them is always the playwright’s ultimate challenge. Currently, Menekseoglu’s script is not up to the task of either portraying this family or expanding its meditation on how fame compounds every dysfunction.

It seems that not much thought has gone into portraying the adult Christopher Robin beyond a bare outline or beyond his relationship to his fictional self created by his father. Menekseoglu’s play asks the audience to care about the man behind the story but, through most of its two acts, portrays C. A. Milne two-dimensionally. The final scene of reconciliation between him and Pooh, his long lost friend, is certainly powerful—it just takes too long to get there – and by the time we do, the journey has been sluggish. This play will need serious revision if it is to truly balance the archetypal Christopher Robin with his human counterpart.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Mishelle Apalategui as young Christopher Robin and Jeremy Menekseoglu as Billy Moon in Dream Theatre's 'The Grisly/Glorious Adventure of Christopher Robin, Winnie-the-Pooh and Billy Moon.

     
     

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REVIEW: Devilish Children-Civilizing Process (Dream Thtr)

   
  

Naughty children demand gnarly punishment

 

Devilish Children - Dream Theatre 017

   
Dream Theatre presents
   
The Devilish Children and the Civilizing Process
    
Written and directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu
Based on German tales by Heinrich Hoffmann
at Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th Street (map)
through Nov 21  |  tickets: $12-$18  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Are children little monsters? Do they need constant discipline in order to be molded into socially acceptable beings? Is terror a useful and appropriate tool to insure obedience and good behavior? Is a certain level of cruelty always necessary when raising children? Dream Theatre has long produced disturbing archetypal works by its Artistic Director Jeremy Menekseoglu. But his new play, The Devilish Children and the Civilizing Process, digs deep into the very foundations of what we like to believe is cultured order and proper education. Beneath the veneer of discipline lies violence to spontaneous playfulness, emotional well-being and childlike innocence.

Devilish Children - Dream Theatre 031All of which is just fine with the cast. Directed by the playwright, they plunge with relish into their new production’s dark savagery, based on the 19th century collection of German cautionary children’s tales by early psychologist Heinrich Hoffmann. “Der Struwwelpeter” became a European classic in its day and served as the inspiration for the breakout 1998 musical, Shockheaded Peter. Anna Menekseoglu, who plays Pauline, remembers an English version of the book from her childhood—as a little girl, its illustrations absolutely fascinated her.

Little Karl, Age 3 (Judith Lesser) has been banished by her German father, referred to only as Vati (Chad Sheveland), to a dark and foreboding place because he misbehaves. Here, Vati tells him, he will learn to become civilized, to act like a gentleman, and earn the right to associate with the rest of world. Once abandoned, he falls under the instruction of the other abandoned, macabre and threatening children in the garret. They perform one story after another on the essential lessons that will make Karl, Age 3, ready for society—never suck your thumb, don’t be a crybaby, don’t run and jump about, don’t play with matches, etc.

Each cautionary tale is a minor adventure in horror. It is not enough to instruct. Karl, Age 3, must be terrified into learning his lessons. To this end, Dream Theatre employs simple stage effects, masks and some pretty traditional, but well-timed horror sound design (Jeremy Menekseoglu). The Tall Tailor (Annelise Lawson), who comes to cut off the thumbs of little boys and girls who won’t stop sucking them, is absolutely frightening. In fact, 19th century children’s costuming (Rachel Martindale) so perfectly complements the cast’s crisp and creepy German dialect it’s difficult not to think of the Third Reich and all its mind-blowing cruelty in the pursuit of the racially pure perfect order.

Devilish Children - Dream Theatre 001 Devilish Children - Dream Theatre 005 Devilish Children - Dream Theatre 006

Menekseoglu and company execute their demon-child roles with sadistic vigor and gruesome enthusiasm. Mishelle Apalategui’s monstrous glee as Romping Polly and Bil Gaines’ calm and sinister delivery as Conrad are particularly memorable. Anna Menekseoglu’s little pyromaniac, Pauline, is just a delight. Humor and play always lurk right beneath the horror, yet the most horrifying lesson for Karl to learn is that he is innately bad and that this place he cannot leave is what he deserves. For him, as well as the rest of us, it’s a relief to see another, more beneficent model of adult masculinity appear near at end of this play–to bring light, generosity and joy to an otherwise hopelessly benighted existence.

    
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Devilish Children - Dream Theatre 016

Devilish Children runs Thursday, October 28 through Sunday, November 21, 2010 with two additional Monday performances on November 8 & 15 at 8:00pm and a special 9:00pm performance on October 30. Performance times are 8pm on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 7pm on Sundays. Performance location is Dream Theatre, 556 West 18th Street, Chicago.

Featuring Annelise Lawson, Chad Sheveland, Judith Lesser, Bil Gaines, Rachel Martindale, Mishelle Apalategui, Anna Menekseoglu and Jeremy Menekseoglu

Design by Anna Weiler, Giau Truong and Jeremy Menekseoglu.

Based on the German cautionary tales by Heinrich Hoffmann.

        
         

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REVIEW: Alligator (Brikenbrak Theatre Project)

 

Brikenbrak chomps into “Alligator”

 

Alligator Show 056

  
Brikenbrak Theatre Project presents
  
Alligator
  
Written by Jeremy Menekseoglu
Directed by
Paul Cosca
at
Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th Street (map)
through August 14  |  tickets: $15-$20   |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

The Brikenbrak Theatre Project had quite a memorable final rehearsal of their new show, Alligator. They arrived at the space to find it completely flooded, and had just a few precious hours to caravan everything over to Dream Theatre. They also had to change up their schedule to allow for the Dream Theatre’s own Orestes. That means that the weekend shows start at 10:30, but they have more manageable start times on Mondays and Tuesdays. Although stripped, stark, and often indulging in the melodramatic, Jeremy Menekseoglu’s little 5-character play sparks and pops alive in director Paul Cosca’s hands.

Alligator Show 086 First, a note for playwrights. There are plenty great, screwed-up plays out there brimming with molestation and incest (there are also plenty of bad ones). We know this sort of depravity adds instant drama and shock value – but wears thin quickly. Unless you’re planning to view child abuse in a new way—Blackbird comes to mind—find something else to push buttons. We’ve been seeing incest on-stage since Oedipus first poked out his eyes. One of the chief problems with Menekseoglu’s script is that it falls back on hushed family secrets at the expense of strong characters. Child abuse is tragic when it happens in real life; on-stage, it feels a little cheap, probably due to repetition.

That said, Alligator does explore some intriguing consequences of abuse. We follow the neurotic antics of Velvet (a ragged Clare Kander) as she is chauffeured to a mental hospital by her brother Lone (Graham Jenkins) and his girlfriend, Cricket (Jessica London-Shields), who both happen to be Olympians. She also forges a relationship with a grocery store-clerk/ex-con, the portly Ben (Michael Plummer). As Velvet slowly loses her mind, the alligators in her past come out to feed.

Kander is the one who really drives the show forward. She is belligerent, self-destructive, and nuttier than a Payday, but ultimately engaging. She teases the audience into being on her side. Jenkins also adds interesting facets to Lone, who may be just as insane as his sister, but much more violent. Plummer does well picking up on chemistry from other actors, but he sinks during long scenes where Ben is interacting with invisible characters. Whether he’s herding customers through his line or fighting a non-existent diner owner, the scenes just aren’t believable. On the opposite end of spectrum of Kander, Shields drags the pace down, coming off as whiny and stiff. When they’re all together, the group of actors explodes into life, shattering any of their old acting habits.

 

Alligator Show 040 Alligator Show 082 Alligator Show 013

The entire cast (with the exception of Plummer) way overpowers the space. Cosca allowed far too much shrieking, screaming, and screeching. While crazy people in real life may yell a lot, no theatre audience wants to be assaulted like they are in Alligator. It takes us right out of the play and breaks the carefully-constructed link we had to the characters. There are other, far more interesting ways to build intensity.

Menekseoglu’s script is messy. There is a layer of metatheatricality that is poorly handled, especially in the final moments. Velvet seems to directly address the audience, but it’s left unclear. The play veers into controversial topics like mental health and domestic abuse without really saying anything new. It’s reminiscent of Sam Shepherd, obsessed with blue collar Americana but allowing for some Classical Greek undertones. Unfortunately, Alligator fails to resonate like Curse of the Starving Class or True West.

But Brikenbrak brings tons of heart to the play; the cast’s commitment is rock-solid. They do a remarkable job using the almost bare stage, creating and transforming worlds with just a few props. Cosca remains faithful to the text, even if leads the production down some dead-ends.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Cypress Swamp
Lance Rosier Unit of Big Thicket National Preserve
near Sartoga, Hardin Co., Texas
3 April 2004

           
All photos by Paul Cosca      
        

REVIEW: Orestes (Dream Theatre)

Daddy’s Little Girl Is a Fighter, Not a Thinker

 

 Orestes 383

   
Dream Theatre presents
  
Orestes
   
Written and directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu
at
Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th Street  (map)
through August 15th  |  tickets: $15-$18  |  more info 

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Under director and playwright Jeremy Menekseoglu, Dream Theatre rounds out its radical re-visioning of The Oresteia, Aeschylus’ monumental trilogy. Menekseoglu’s Orestes is definitely not The Eumenides, the last play of Aeschylus’ trilogy. By all  indications, Menekseoglu has composed Orestes specifically to contradict everything The Eumenides affirms.

Orestes 184AeschylusThe Eumenides is an origin story about the ancient Athenian patriarchal system of law and order; most scholars see in it the societal transition from vendetta to a system of litigation. In The Eumenides, the goddess Athena invents the 12-man jury system and the god Apollo defends Orestes against the charge of murdering his mother, Clytemnestra. But Menekseoglu’s Orestes does not establish any kind of order. Instead, it reveals a dark, underworld Matrix-style order of perpetual tragedy, ruled over by the queenly mother of human misery, Pandora (Rachel Martindale). How interesting that eternal oblivion and human agony get to be maintained by strong, powerful, female figures!

Aeschylus’s The Eumenides begins in nightmare–the Furies drive Orestes mad at the urging of the restless, vengeful ghost of Clytemnestra. Nevertheless, Orestes’ agony ends in bright promise, hope and blessings for the Athenian polis. By contrast, Menekseoglu’s Orestes begins in nightmare—in a macabre tavern at the edge of Hell—and descends from there into its deepest, darkest, most bizarre center.

Dream Theatre can celebrate. Their production’s direct, simple yet fundamental set and lighting designs (Anna Weiler, Giau Truong, and Jeremy Menekseoglu) have created a vision of underworld unparalleled by small theaters in this city and would be the envy of any larger theater company, who are often surfeit in funding but lacking in imagination. Menekseoglu’s sound design perfectly complements and fixes the atmosphere of this comprehensive, multilayered vision of Hell. If the object of theater is to create an entire world on a finite stage, then Dream Theatre has done it and done it brilliantly.

What a mad, dark, lonely, and hopeless underworld it is. Despair begins long before the descent. Electra (Anna Weiler), spurned by men for the murder of her mother, Clytemnestra, prepares to enter Hell in order to redeem her brother Orestes, whom she compelled to carry out the crime. Just like Xena Warrior Princess or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Electra is ready to fight every step of the way to rescue him. She is also prepared to take on all the guilt, if only Orestes can go free.

To that end, Electra waits for Persephone (Theresa Neef), the wife of Hades, to arrive at the tavern on the edge of Hell, little knowing that Cassandra (Alicia Reese) now accompanies her as her maid. For those in need of reminder, Cassandra is the woman that Agamemnon (Menekseoglu), Electra’s father, brought back from his ten-year war against Troy as his captive and spoils, only to be murdered by Agamemnon’s treacherous wife, Clytemnestra, during his assassination. (See our review for Dream Theatre’s first installment of the trilogy, Agamemnon, here ★★★)

Orestes 405

Orestes is a woman’s play through and through; a play written for Electra’s trial, not her brother Orestes’. Her entire underworld journey is her trial and the dark recesses of her mind are her only jury, reflected through her encounters with the characters she meets in Hell. Dream Theatre has successfully created the perfect surreal atmosphere, wherein in the physical space of Hell itself become fused with what is happening in Electra’s mind. The two become indistinguishable.

The play leads Electra to her final, dark encounter with the origin of all human tragedy, Pandora. Depending mightily upon the strength of the actresses who play these four roles, Weiler, Neef, Reese and Martindale hold this play’s fascinating center and bring its action to exciting fruition. What a pleasure to see so much dramatic emphasis given to women’s personal agency.  Yet, Orestes both is and is not an empowering play for women.

Both Neef and Martindale display amazing capacity to maintain regal focus in any scene. Persephone’s decadent drunkenness, caused by agonized resentment over having to return once again to her rapist husband, Hades, does not diminish Neef’s casually arrogant, elegant expressions of entitlement. Martindale’s Pandora, the play’s other queenly figure, may weep with suffering humanity for the suffering she has caused, yet casts an ominous shadow in her dark function to perpetuate tragedy eternally.

Only Cassandra, as a character, begins to weary. Mostly, she childishly and repetitively harangues Electra. She is glad Agamemnon is dead and glad Electra caused Clytemnestra’s death; she would willingly watch Electra kill them both again and again. All the same, she hates Electra for her bloody lineage.

Cassandra’s hatred of Electra is childishly absurd—sadly, the positioning of her childish absurdities is also dramatically weak. Likewise, the scene between Electra and the murdered, innocent children of Medea, Mermerus (Bil Gaines) and Pheres (Giau Truong) is terribly weak. They reside in Hell while their vengeful mother has been spirited away from just retribution by Hera, the (Bitch) Queen of the Gods.

Menekseoglu may be trying to do too much with too little.

On the one hand, the playwright is trying to have powerful female characters, while implicating the unseen hand, Big Daddy Zeus, in the midst of all this injustice toward women and children.  On the other hand, he has to acknowledge the dangers of matriarchal excess—hence the references to Hera and Medea. Part of Menekseoglu’s confusion lies in the violence that happens to children under adult order, patriarchal or matriarchal. Clearly, the attitudes that 21st century Americans have towards children are not those of 5th century BCE Greeks. Children, in that age, had no identity or agency apart from their families. They, even more than women, were persons without rights or status.

In ancient Athens, man was lord, kyrios*, of his household. Everyone else in the household, wife, children, and slaves, were under his control. Furthermore, under the practice of exposure, all children, once they were born, were submitted to their father for either approval or rejection. According to one source on exposure,

The household head, the kyrios, had the right to accept the children and could reject them based on gender, size of the family, physical deformity or frailty, economic considerations, legitimacy, or because they were the offspring of slaves. Disposal was arranged through exposure, a process that involved abandoning an infant to its death to the elements. This practice, rather than simply killing the infant, may have developed because it freed the household from bloodguilt, or because parents truly believed that they were placing their exposed infants in the care of the gods . . . In Sparta, exposure of physically weak or sickly infants was demanded by law and determined by the elders of the tribes rather than the household head.

Exposure was legally and socially acceptable; in no way would a father ever be charged with murder for exposing his child. Furthermore, even though exposure is a major feature in tragedies like Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, it is often forgotten when modern theatergoers come across Euripides The Medea. Medea’s act of killing her children is not simply jealous revenge against Jason—she is usurping his authority over her children’s lives; through murder, she is taking back her children and claiming them as hers to kill. Some feminist scholars in the 1980s claimed Medea as a feminist icon and some playwrights, like Janet Burroway, have cunningly responded to that kind of misplaced heroine-worship. (See our review of Medea With Child here★★★★)

It’s clear that Menekseoglu doesn’t know about exposure, has forgotten it, or has curiously left it out. When Electra encounters her father Agamemnon in Orestes 237Hell, he tells her he wishes he had thrown her off a cliff instead of letting her live. Well, that sounds curiously, unintentionally anachronistic. The ancient warrior Agamemnon had a fatherly prerogative to dispose of his infant children as he willed. Both Electra and Orestes could have been exposed on Daddy’s orders and he would have been well within his rights. It’s doubtful their mother, Clytemnestra, would ever have raised a fuss, not because Clytemnestra was an evil bitch who hated Electra and Orestes, but because exposure was an option available to every husband. Surely, the ancient Electra would be fully aware of the husband’s prerogative of exposure once she came to marriageable age. Her husband would be kyrios of the household in which she lived, after all.

So much is deeply beautiful and mythologically correct about Dream Theatre’s excellent Agon Trilogy. But the playwright still needs to revise its final installment. Parts of Orestes are gettable to Classical Greek geeks but are still inaccessible to the average theatergoer. The play’s conception of justice for children, in relation to the powerlessness of women under patriarchal dominance, needs to be tightened up and brought alive between the characters.

Finally, it’s fine that Electra is a Daddy’s Girl and it’s fine that she is fighter, not a thinker. Hers is a life of violent action against her oppressors. Heroines acting out like Xena or Buffy are honestly a lot of fun. But Orestes could really use a powerful female figure more like the real life pagan philosopher, Hypatia. She was an intellectual capable of interrogating the power structures surrounding her. She certainly wouldn’t settle for being made the guilty party when so much patriarchal justice seems capricious and stacked against women and children. No wonder an early Christian mob had to kill her. Now, she was a dangerous woman.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Orestes, by Jeremy Menekseoglu, is playing  7/15-8/15 Thurs-Sats at 8pm, Sundays  7pm at Dream Theatre Company, 556 W 18th Street. Orestes features Anna Weiler, Theresa Neef, Alicia Reese, Annelise Lawson, Bil Gaines, Giau Truong, Rachel Martindale and Jeremy Menekseoglu    Tickets: 773-552-8616 or click here.

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*The familiar Greek Christian prayer “Kyrie, eleison” or “Lord, have mercy” is derived from kyrioskyrie being the vocative case.

   
   

REVIEW: Electra (Dream Theatre)

Let Us Sing Now in Praise of Bloody Women

 DTC204

   
Dream Theatre presents
  
Electra
  

Written and directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu
at
Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th Street  (map)
through June 6  tickets: $15-$85  |   more info 

reviewed by Paige Listerud

…as though laughing at what was done,
she has found out the day on which she killed
my father in her treachery, and on that day
has set a dancing festival and sacrifices
sheep, in a monthly ritual, “to the Gods that saved her.”
So within that house I see, to my wretchedness,
the accursed feast named in his honor.an

 

Electra by Sophocles
translation by David Grene

Such is the scenario the audience is admitted to, as they step into Dream Theatre’s lobby space. A party is underway in celebration of Agamemnon’s Death Day: the anniversary of the assassination of the Mycenaean king just as he was returning from the Trojan War with Cassandra as his spoils. A bloody skull, a cheerfully  propagandizing Crysothemis (Danielle Gennaoui), and a slightly drunk pretender-king, Aegisthus (Giau Truong), greet audience members and demand their participation in the festivities. The audience gamely—or uncomfortably—keeps up with the improv until the misgivings of the queen, Clytemnestra (Rachel Martindale), lead all to be banished to the swamp. Appropriately, it’s the same dead-end swamp to which Electra (Anna Weller), the noble daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, has been exiled. She lives out her days in forced marriage to a lowly commoner, Pamphilos (Bil Gaines); there, she grudgingly serves food to the lost or abandoned Chorus members from former tragedies in their soup kitchen “at the crossroads.”

DTC 248By all indications so far, Classical lit geeks and devotees of ancient drama can be both inspired and assured with Jeremy Menekseoglu’s creative re-imagining of The Oresteia. His first rendering, Agamemnon (our review ★★★), re-explored the myth with an eye to the impact of captivity on both conqueror and slave—generally, Stockholm Syndrome with an ancient Greek twist. As playwright and director, his next offering in the trilogy, Electra, takes off from Sophocles and makes its eponymous heroine even greater and more central to its story than the old master. On top of which, Menekseoglu pulls in elements from all three tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—both to develop this retelling’s fullest dramatic impact and to create the most feminist Electra ever. The women of his Electra are dangerous daughters and granddaughters of Leda and Zeus. Even when they look their meekest, they should never be underestimated.

Though Aegisthus struck the blow, Electra—not incorrectly—blames her mother for her father’s death. She longs for Orestes’ return in order to act out her long-held desires for revenge. Clytemnestra has carried out her designs on Electra and Orestes via her proxy, Aegisthus, but no one is fooled for a moment about who wears the pants in this kingdom. Besides portraying an ancient Greek catfight of epic proportions, the play is a profound meditation on what happens to the men who become too close to such dangerous, manipulative, and royal femininity. Here the guys are simply overwhelmed and ensnared in their women’s ambitions and machinations—in other words, Electra is a thoughtful, cunning, shoe-on-the-other-foot kind of drama for the modern theatergoer. Is it the return of the repressed Matriarchy? You be the judge.

As an old Classical geek, all I can say is–at last, a truly contemporary and authentic Greek Chorus for modern drama! Here, each Chorus lives on from past tragedies of which they were a part. They are not human yet they are individual enough through each of their fragmented choral remembrances of Oedipus, Hippolytus, and Agamemnon. Here at the crossroads they wait as in limbo for another tragedy to strike; for another opportunity to see noble vengeance executed and noble blood spilt. “Justice” is just one of their eerie mantras. Clearly, this Chorus owes a debt to Surrealism and Dadaism in modern drama. However, what can be relished most DTC 097 about Menekseoglu’s Chorus is how thoroughly they resurrect the Erinyes, or the Furies, from Aeschylus’ original Oresteia. Not even Sophocles or Euripides did as much with their versions of Electra. Welcome back, dear, dark, bloody girls—we’ve missed you.

As for our heroine, Anna Weiler has Electra’s dishonored and frustrated manly ambition down pat. Would that a little more emotional range could be viewed in her performance–although nothing tops the obvious exultation Electra feels when Orestes returns and the Chorus coalesces around her in anticipation of vengeance fulfilled.

Nothing can top her except Mom, of course. Rachel Martindale’s larger-than-life portrayal of the queen of devious queens, Clytemnestra, is nothing short of magnificent and glorious in its reptilian cunning. Her performance truly makes Clytemnestra one of those evil queens you never want to see die–even when you know death is coming.

As for the guys, some might benefit from more character development than others. It really is a women’s play—glittery girl Chrysothemis gets her chance, too, at the battleaxe. Menekseoglu’s Orestes is a slow, hurt boy of a warrior, who was raised in hardship and never received much love. He thinks his sister’s attentions toward him are born of unadulterated truth and affection. But then, neither he nor his sister can see the woe coming for him once he has actually struck the blow against his mother. Fine enough for Truong’s Aegisthus to be a gaudy, sensualist boy-toy; at least he’s fully aware of his purpose and position in Argos. I might wish for a little more teeth to Pamphilos, either in the script or in Gaines’ portrayal of him. But he does get to deliver a moment of comeuppance to Electra, once the deed is done and everything has gone far beyond what she anticipated.

Altogether, this Electra satisfies with its cunning, invention, and witty adherence to Classical tradition. Dream Theatre’s teaser for the final part of the trilogy reads thus:

Led by Persephone and Cassandra, both who hate the very air she breathes, a desperate and battle hardened Electra ventures in to the bowels of Hell to witness a fate truly worse than death itself.”

Hmmm…. Aeschylus confined himself to Orestes’ redemption and, under the wisdom of Athena, the birth of the jury system in Attic law. Who knows if Electra’s journey to the Underworld has anything to do with that?

 

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
 
 
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Starring Anna Weiler, Alicia Reese, Bil Gaines, Giau Truong, Rachel Martindale, Danielle Gennaoui, Annelise Lawson, Molly Gray, Theresa Neef, Alison Faraj and Jeremy Menekseoglu

May not be appropriate for children under 13.

The Final Chapter: Orestes concludes the story on July 8