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Adapted from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides by Kenneth Cavander

Directed by Molly Smith

At Arena Stage to Oct. 7

Italian-American Reconciliation

By John Patrick Shanley

Directed by Richard Romagnoli

At the Source Theatre to Oct. 10

You’d have had to be as blind as Oedipus not to recognize that Arena Stage’s briskly invigorating Agamemnon and His Daughters was going to have an uphill battle on opening night.

Coming just days after the premiere of a similarly conceived Sophoclean triple-header put on by the Shakespeare Theatre, it needed to deal swiftly with any fears the crowd out front might have harbored about attending a second evening of Greek tragedy in less than a week. The thunder, after all, had already been stolen from the idea of combining multiple plays into one evening. And given that at the Lansburgh, the Oedipus legend had been rather startlingly reset in Africa, with an all-black cast and a nationally recognized star in the title role, that had to be counted a tough act to follow.

So there was respectful hush at Arena on opening night, when Agamemnon (Jack Willis)—desperately in need of a breeze to speed his warships toward Troy—strode to the center of a rumpled carpet of parachute silk and took note of the eerie, windless silence that had enveloped the auditorium. The moment felt appropriate—the quiet that presages a storm of cataclysmic proportions.

But in his next line, Agamemnon let the audience know that this particular evening wouldn’t be taking quite so time-honored a route to tragedy. Knitting his brow and sneering slightly, he established both the evening’s tone and all that the audience needed to know about the state of his royal family: “We’re all agreed on why we’re here,” he snorted. “Helen, the most beautiful woman in Greece, was allowed to choose her own husband, and made the worst choice possible—my brother.”

Crisp and disarming, that line almost couldn’t help getting a laugh. And in doing so, it cleared the way for Kenneth Cavander’s breezily entertaining adaptation of one of classical theater’s grimmest stories. The Agamemnon cycle, replete with patricide, matricide, and a host of lesser -cides, begins and ends with godly interference in the life of the House of Atreus, but it’s very much a family saga. At the evening’s outset, Agamemnon receives word that Artemis requires the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia before the goddess will fill the sails of his fleet. Agamemnon’s wife, Klytaimestra, is naturally horrified that he’d even consider such a thing, and when he actually carries it out, she vows vengeance. When she exacts that vengeance, she sets in motion a series of familial paybacks.

But first, Artemis provides the wind she promised, and director Molly Smith, with a spectacular assist from Arena’s designers, has arranged for it to blow out any remaining cobwebs that might be cluttering the audience’s view of Greek theater. As a whistling sonic hurricane fills the auditorium, air currents lift the crumpled silk floor covering, making it bubble and seethe, then flood this way and that under the actors’ feet, like something alive. Klytaimestra—shellshocked at this roiling proof of her daughter’s death—stands her ground at first, then plows through the waves of churning fabric as if she were the prow of one of her husband’s battleships. And when she’s finally sailed through it all, the fabric billows higher and higher, no longer a foaming, cresting wave, but a soaring, billowing sail that fills to bursting, then follows her out into the wings.

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It’s a wondrous, Cirque du Soleil-esque effect, as captivating in its theatricality as it is dramatically appropriate, and it’s just one of many idiosyncratic tricks Smith has up her directorial sleeve. There’s the floor that glows in colors and patterns, then dips and ascends to form both cages and stages, while lighting effects create walls and columns out of thin air. Also an Elektra (Natascia Diaz) who snarls pantherlike as she torments her mother, a teenage Iphigeneia (Marta Ann Lastufka) who embraces her role as a human sacrifice as if she’d just won a spot on the cheerleading squad, a kingly usurper (Andrew Long) who’s practically a drag queen (and whom I kept expecting to sing, “Walk across my swimming pool” with a Herod-like flourish), and a gold-robed goddess (Naomi Jacobson) who appears at evening’s end to wave away the royal family’s troubles with a few well-chosen aphorisms.

Because Cavander’s script is an adaptation, rather than a more straightforward translation of the Greek plays, it can take lots of liberties, not merely in transforming declamatory speeches into played scenes, but in condensing and sharpening a tale that Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles needed multiple evenings to tell. The phrasing at Arena is smart, observant, and quite witty in its use of double-entendre. Early on, when Klytaimestra thinks her family has gathered for Iphigeneia’s marriage rather than her sacrifice, for instance, there’s a neat disconnect in the way she hears nearly everything said by her calculating but grieving husband. “Forgive me,” Agamemnon murmurs, wiping away a tear, “I’m losing a daughter,” and because that sounds like the sort of thing any father of the bride might say, his wife embraces him when she should be clawing his eyes out.

Gail Grate’s Klytaimestra is pretty marvelous in these early scenes, though later, the actress can’t really make sense of character inconsistencies that arise from the cobbling together of her story from several plays by different authors. As in the Oedipus cycle at the Lansburgh (in which the king demands exile in an early sequence, then later blames his sons for exiling him), there are puzzling incongruities. Grate is required to play her early scenes regally, her middle ones as either broad satire or a drunk act, and her final moments as desperate tragedy. She manages the switches intelligently enough, but she can’t help seeming a tad bipolar as the evening progresses.

Her children—who grow older but not appreciably wiser before your eyes—also behave in ways that make you wonder if the whole House of Atreus isn’t afflicted with the brand of memory loss that handicapped the hero of Memento. When you meet Elektra only in adulthood, as you do in Euripides’ version of her story, it’s easy to accept her hatred of her mother for killing her father. But when the whole saga is done at one go, with generations passing between scenes, it’s hard to discount the fact that she also knew Dad sacrificed Sis.

Still, as the story races along—and it really does fly by in Smith’s staging—I suspect most patrons won’t be inclined to quibble too much. With emphasis placed so firmly on plain-spoken speech patterns and comprehensible motivations, it is quickly evident that none of the characters will climb to the height required for a truly tragic fall. But disaster on a more human scale is still disaster, and this family certainly has more than its share. Is it cathartic? No, but it sure as hell is gripping.

Committed to producing “high-impact” theater for audiences who wouldn’t be caught dead humming an Andrew Lloyd Webber tune, Project Y regularly crosses up expectations in everything except its high production quality. But after agitprop about dead schoolgirls, end-of-empire rants about British explorers, and now an uproarious, giddily performed comic romance by John Patrick Shanley—Italian American Reconciliation—the question arises: Is there nothing to which this company won’t affix its own hip brand of “impact”?

Shanley, after all, is the guy who wrote Moonstruck. He’s a sentimentalist by inclination—linguistically clever, but pure mush at center—and his tale of a lovesick Brooklyn lad, his macho buddy, and the women they adore is not at first (or even second) blush the sort of thing you’d think would be attracting a troupe that sprang from the loins of the left-leaning, ferociously political Potomac Theatre Project.

Still, with a spare, fairy-tale staging by PTP co-founder Richard Romagnoli, Project Y’s Reconciliation is a romp to be reckoned with—audience-involving, vivid, rambunctious, and alternately hilarious and affecting. It begins with a prayer by a charismatic hail-fellow-well-met type named Aldo (Eric Sutton) to the Virgin Mary, followed by a risky but beautifully handled chat with the audience that evolves into the story of how he got waaay-over-his-head-involved in the romantic troubles of his best friend, Huey (Peter Makrauer), a divorced guy whose ex-wife (Michole Biancosino) has a violent streak and whose current girlfriend (Caroline Kellogg) is a living doll.

Huey, much to Aldo’s amazement, is stuck on the witch and unable to accept the love of the princess. What’s a bud to do?

Well, I should probably let you discover that for yourself. Suffice it to say that gunshots are fired, tears cried, bromides uttered, and plans undone, pretty much ideally. It’s not deep, but it’s enormous fun, especially with Romagnoli’s supremely visual staging emphasizing fantasy elements at every turn. When Huey’s ex-wife is revealed at the beginning of Act 2, she’s quite literally shrouded in mystery, and as the shrouds come unwrapped, revealing her in a funereal robe over a shimmering blood-red gown, it’s clear that naturalism isn’t what’s intended.

Designer Matt Soule’s candlelit shrine and upside-down Greek columns place the events in a pleasantly imprecise New York City of the imagination, even as the acting locates us more exactly in sitcom territory. Sutton’s garrulous, ingratiatingly grating Aldo is the evening’s crowd pleaser, but all the others are terrific. Kellogg and Makrauer are appealingly passionate and wide-eyed as the two lovers who are so clearly made for each other that they’re fated to break up early and often. Biancosino imbues Huey’s angry ex with enormous pain, somehow managing to make an alienating character intriguing. And Suzanne Richard is a delight as Aunt May, adding a welcome shot of vinegar to her delivery whenever the author requires her to mouth platitudes about love and devotion that would choke an archbishop. CP