I have always considered the Shakespeare Theatre Company to be one of the region’s more serious companies for its ambitious productions, many of which boldly reinterpret the classics in contemporary settings. That reputation has not been built overnight; it stems from the coherent view and guidance of artistic director Michael Kahn, who has guided this company since it set up shop at the Folger Theatre in the 1980s and transformed it into an organization with two wonderful stages in downtown D.C. To mark the end of his stewardship of the company, Kahn has reached back to the dawn of theater and plucked a Greek classic, The Oresteia, to down the curtain on his distinguished run.
Aeschylus’ The Oresteia is one of drama’s great tragedies and a meditation on justice. Aeschylus lived in tumultuous times: He was a hoplite in the Athenian army during the Persian wars, and a citizen of Athens when it switched to a democratic system. He mined both experiences to write Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides, the three plays that comprise The Oresteia. Playwright Ellen McLaughlin has modified and compressed the three plays into one, revising them for contemporary times. Inevitably, much is lost in the compression, and significantly, a lot is altered in the transition, so if you are familiar with the original, gripe like a Game of Thrones final season fan.
The play starts with the return of Agamemnon (Kelcey Watson) from the Trojan wars. Elsewhere in the classical canon, Odysseus is making his long, convoluted journey home. Odysseus will return to a loyal wife who loves him, but Agamemnon expects no such welcome. His wife, Clytemnestra (Kelley Curran), seethes at the return of her husband. Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter before setting sail—the gods demanded it—and now he has to pay.
Clytemnestra lays out a crimson carpet—the first red carpet in history—for Agamemnon and, despite his reluctance, hesitating at this ostentation and display of pride, he walks on it into his house, a forbidding, gloomy, wine-red structure with a huge door, set against the backdrop of a dark, starry night, and dies. Death also finds Cassandra (Zoë Sophia Garcia), Agamemnon’s spoils of war; her warnings fall on deaf ears in the middle of Susan Hilferty’s rocky set, which evokes tragedy and heartbreak.
Curran is excellent as Clytemnestra, capturing the mother’s anger, and her vengeful rage. “He has achieved his just end,” she proclaims of the slain Agamemnon. Watson plays the leader as proud and stiff, a man respectful of the gods in nearly every circumstance.
The two stars of the remainder of the play are Orestes (Josiah Bania) and Electra (Rad Pereira), the children of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra who demand violence for violence enacted, and seek revenge for their murdered father. McLaughlin’s adaptation pays more attention to Electra, and Pereira fills the space given to her extremely well. Bania’s performance is also strong, particularly in his one major speech conveying the dilemma and pain of the son who had to murder his mother to avenge his father.
But at issue, again, is the excision of the text. Orestes is not just avenging his father and Electra is not just consumed by anger over losing him; in Aeschylus’ original, the issues of status, of loss of power, of family pride, are important. For example, in the original, Orestes kills both his mother and her lover, who has usurped his father’s, and eventually his, role as ruler. Snipping this narrative strand weakens the motivations of the characters.
The third act, based on The Eumenides, is revealing in this regard. It lays the foundation of the democratic legal system, arguing for a trial by jury and circumscribing the system of private, aristocratic, and religious justice based on private passions that lead to honor killings. In Aeschylus’ telling, after lots are cast, Athena’s vote for Orestes breaks a hung jury. In the current staging, the jury is not broken by the gods; instead Orestes and Electra are simply forgiven after debate. The intervention of the gods would be an apt judicial and political metaphor for our current troubled and deeply divided times.
Despite these quibbles, this is an entertaining staging. Kahn does a great job directing this troupe; it is a testament to his skill that one of the best parts of the production is the wonderful performance of the chorus as its members debate justice. And, as a political and contemporary work—the Greeks used the theater to educate the public, after all—it is enthralling and instructional to see cycles of private violence finally leashed by an institution.
To June 2 at 610 F St. NW. $44–$118. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.