City Paper is not for tourists
“It’s a tricky mixture, half—” muses Holly Twyford’s quivering Electra, getting a laugh by pausing in Folger Theater’s Orestes: A Tragic Romp. She’s talking “half-god-half-mortal,” but it’s hard not to hear a shoutout to the evening itself—a mix of modern dress and ancient narrative, sardonic wit and anguished rhetoric, matricide, patricide, aunticide, cross-dressing, and even a Redgrave ex machina. Also, a Chorus that’s equal parts Greek and Glee. Pretty much from the moment Twyford is revealed, finding unlikely chuckles in House of Atreus horror stories while fondling a rock that may soon be used to stone her to death, this “romp” qualifies as the most aggressively funny Greek tragedy since Oliver Stone’s Alexander (with the bonus that this time, the humor’s not inadvertent). It’s Euripides on steroids, passions flaring bright enough to register in Olympus if only the gods were paying attention. Electra, in that opening moment, is standing guard over a limp pile of rags that turns out to be her brother Orestes (a feral Jay Sullivan, who last year played the hunk in Studio Theater’s History Boys, and really, what is it in D.C. with that character and Greek tragedy?). He’s sleeping off a bit of familial revenge that’s put him and sis in harm’s way despite being god-ordained (by Apollo, who’ll pop down later for a chat, inflections courtesy of Lynn Redgrave). Once awakened by a chorus of the clumsiest/noisiest women in Argos, Orestes’ll rave, weep, beg his uncle Menelaus to save him, and plot with his best buddy to kill Menelaus’ wife Helen. (Since a downright chameleonic Chris Genebach is playing all three—vacillating uncle, gung-ho buddy, and fashion-plate Helen—you have to figure this, at the very least, is going to be a nifty trick.) And so it goes with Anne Washburn’s ingeniously contemporary, eloquently delirious adaptation of what was already a pretty eccentric play by Euripides. Aaron Posner, who directed last year’s transcendent Arcadia, crams the evening with grace notes—the towering white walls of Daniel Conway’s ceremonial setting, a song James Sugg seems to have crafted entirely of sighs and exhalations—while getting nuanced performances from actors who must render harrowing the moments between haymakers. Twyford, for instance, prompting laughs with the hyphenated “half” in that first scene while gripping a smooth stone so tightly her knuckles turn white, then letting the stone drop to rocky ground with a thud, and—with the briefest of hesitations—registering that she has just now realized how it will feel when it hits flesh.