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: Medea with Child (Sideshow Theatre)

When the Goddess devours her own

 

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Sideshow Theatre Company presents
 
Medea with Child
 
by Janet Burroway
directed by Jonathan L. Green
at La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston  (map)
through April 25th (more info)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Medea With Child by Janet Burroway confronts the shallowness of modern-day existence still under the burdens of sexism, racism, age-ism, and nationalism; only these age-old fault lines are compounded further by contemporary image obsession, especially as political manipulation. It’s also a play about a (supernaturally) powerful woman reeling over lost love, lost youth, lost dignity, and, therefore, needing no more pretenses regarding motherly devotion. Sideshow Theatre Company clearly has too much fun with this material, yet they are simply co-conspiring with the playwright’s fast-paced, satirical wit and inspired juxtapositions.

MedeaWithChild4 Based on Euripides’ classic play The Medea, Media (Sojourner Zenobia Wright) acts out as the ultimate, ethno-folkloric Mommie Dearest—slaughtering her children in revenge against her husband’s infidelity and his total sociopolitical displacement of her. Burroway keeps the theme of Media’s barbarism completely intact from the Ancient Greek original but stretches its metaphor of the total stranger to its outer limits. Perhaps even more than Euripides’ heroine, Media is the eternal sister outsider.

Rising mythically out of Africa’s primordial depths, Media’s expansive, magical perception of reality extends far beyond normal human experience. As a result, she lives in the perpetual state of no one ever really getting her. She can talk on and on to slippery politico Crayon (Richard Warner) or to wayward husband Chasten (John Bonner)—but no one truly understands what she is saying and thinking.

Indeed, given their own total self-absorption with image and all its ramifications, no one around Media may even be trying. This establishes to some of most sublime contradictions in the course of the play. Glossy (Nicole Richwalsky), Crayon’s daughter and Chasten’s new secretary/squeeze, proclaims herself a feminist and claims Media as her feminist icon. But she is wrong on both counts. Media is not a feminist; her powers do not come from feminism–they come from a more primal place and go well beyond anything so dry as feminist political theory. She is what every feminist wishes she could be—especially the old school, Second Wave warriors who claimed witches for their feminist role models. Likewise, Glossy’s upstaging of Media in her affair with Chasten could hardly be recognized as a feminist act. Indeed, Glossy seems more fascinated with Media’s celebrity feminist status than any actual empowerment for herself or other women. When all is said and done, she basks in Media’s reflected glory by bedding her husband.

It’s a fine example of Burroway’s wry, twisted wit winking through the dialogue. Sisterhood is powerful; but not when young feminist sister stabs sister in the back because she has a mistaken idea of what feminism is. It may be completely mute in the company of men who have no interest in contradicting Glossy and every interest in moving Media aside for a brand, new (post-feminist?) order. It’s not just that the prospect for women’s empowerment goes down the tubes. Puerility replaces substance; swapping out Glossy for Media is like substituting The Runaways with The Spice Girls.

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By no means is that the limit of this play’s comic scope. Indeed, several viewings might be needed to savor every flavorful drop of its juicy, wicked goodness. Director Jonathan L. Green has assembled a superlative cast, all evenly sure and subtle in their delivery. As Media’s children, both in their play and their prognostications about mother, Fairies (Andrew Sa) and Murmurous (Lea Pascal) have the sacrificial victim thing disturbingly down pat.

So much meticulous attention has been given to every detail in performance and design each moment brings new discoveries and revelations. Joshua Lansing’s set design not only provides versatility, it places surprises in every corner. David Hyman’s construction of Media’s costume alone deserves an award and Wright certainly wears it well. She may be a killer, but girl knows how to bring the Hoodoo Mama chic!

One thing remains peculiarly striking, however. For all the humorous and inventive ways Burroway plays with the myth of Medea and Jason of the Argonauts, Media remains comparatively serious and unable to use humor as her weapon or shield. Wright’s portrayal of Media is nothing but fiercely and sensually witty, but Media herself seems unable to step back and realize the laughable ridiculousness of Chasten’s mid-life-crisis affair with shallow Glossy. In having Media feel too much and without ironic perspective, Burroway preserves the tragicomic nature of the play—exploring, as she wishes, the dark psychodynamics of enmeshed anti-motherhood and love’s betrayal. But is she, consciously or unconsciously, re-inscribing a humorless proto-feminism in the character of Media?

At the start of the play, Crayon holds up a list of possible options for the outcome of the story, in the hope that this time no one would have to die. I didn’t see a palimony option on that list. But palimonied freedom for Media and custody of the kids for Chasten and Glossy would be a completely different play, shifting the myth from tragedy to tragicomedy to comedy. The kind of 5th century BCE political comedy that made Aristophanes famous–wherein the hero, through his trickster nature, overcame his opponents and got everything he wanted. Is Media, for all her dark power and mystical nature, still not a trickster? Does that kind of comic ending still only look good on men and not on women?

 
Rating: ★★★★
 

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