REVIEW: Orestes (Dream Theatre)

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

 

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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 ★★★)

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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

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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

     
      

REVIEW: Agamemnon (Dream Theatre)


“Agamemnon” is a harbinger of good things to come
 
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Dream Theatre presents:
 
Agamemnon
 
Written/Directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu
at
Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th Street (map)
through April 11th (more info | tickets)
 
reviewed by Ian Epstein 

Though it might fool you, Dream Theatre’s Agamemnon is not nearly as dusty as, judging by its title, it seems.  Artistic Director Jeremy Menekseoglu dons his actor/writer hat in this show as both the playwright and the male lead in the role of the homeward bound Greek title character: Agamemnon.  Menekseoglu’s is a retelling of Agamemnon’s homecoming.  It is told from a decidedly claustrophobic point of view that recasts Aeschlyus’ tragedy as a nautical No Exit played out between Agamemnon and a feisty, fluid-moving Cassandra (Courtney Arnett) who Agamemnon has found agamemnon3molested by one of his own Greek soldiers in the temple of Athena.  He offs the soldier and sets out to seduce Cassandra in the confines and comfort of his General’s berth on board his Greece-bound ship.   

Cassandra is the prophet no one believes or she’s a notable slave or she’s spill-over Trojan war spoils – this is the Cassandra to whom Apollo gave prophecy and the unfortunate condition that no one will believe what she foretells, so she stumbles forward into a future she can plainly predict, only able to retell her sad and tattered past.  Her predicament is made worse by the fact that the sea drowns out her gift and leaves her reeling like just another drunk sailor at sea. In one of the plays intense, narrative monologues (there are several), Cassandra paints the traumatic picture of her six year old self, whisked off by an Apollo with questionable motives.

The play is an examination of Stockholm syndrome – where a captive falls in love with or takes the side of the captor – as much as it’s an exercise in mining one of Aeschylus’ classical dramatic texts for something relevant to audience’s today. And Dream Theatre is big on starting this experience the moment you step through the door.  Members from the Chorus of Cassandra (Anna Weiler, Alicia Reese, and Molly Gray) greet all theatre-goers speaking a heightened language and looking like they’re on loan from the underworld.  They solicit the audience member with mandatory chocolate candies then ask which show they’ve come to see before insisting that they’ve come to see Cassandra and not that other one. 

Giau Truong and Anna Weiler collaborated on the set, and the effort shows in intricate, room-filling attention to decaying, wooden detail that evokes a nautical, underwater feel. Jeremy Menekseoglu also has his imprimatur on the sound design, which illustrates what the inside of a prophet’s mind sounds like with nail-biting, wince-inducing clarity.  At other times, the sound design mimics fuzzy agamemnon6 radio, with American dance music filtering through the air-waves and into Agamemnon’s regal berth.  Agememnon tries to impress his captive audience by dancing a sloppy, drunken Black Bottom.  Unimpressed, Cassandra whips out a performance-perfect Charleston that knocks Agamemnon on his ass.  "Where’d you learn to dance like that?" he asks – "Delphi" she replies.

On the whole, Agamemnon is an odd and oddly fresh performance that hits intriguing notes. Menekseoglu and Arnett both deliver performances admirable in their intensity. It’s intimate and foreign; funny one moment and then frightening the next. It uses melodrama as a technique and not by accident.   But the blend of heightened language with profanity and everyday speech still gets in the way.  The attempts at many of the poetic moments feel overdone, prosaic, and closer to the 2,500 year old source-text than most moments in the rest of the show.  A trait that may make the show a fuller experience for dramaphiles already familiar with the myth that Menekseoglu is molding.

As a first installment, Agamemnon is a harbinger of good things to come.  It will certainly be exciting to watch as Menekseoglu steers the Dream ensemble through the next two plays of his Agon Trilogy. (see performance dates fore next 2 parts of trilogy after the fold.)

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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