Shakespeare Theatre Company will be presenting playwright Ellen McLaughlin’s adaptation of Aeschylus’ “The Oresteia,” directed by Michael Kahn, at Sidney Harman Hall at the Harman Center for the Arts, 610 F St NW, Washington, D.C. 20004. “The Oresteia” is the oldest play to have been passed down through history and the only Greek trilogy to survive the ages. The themes of the play are universal, a woman scorned a mother’s love for her child, revenge and even the concept of a democratic legal system where the accused goes to trial and is not punished by individuals, a mob or the gods. It took McLaughlin three years to finish the script for this freely adapted trilogy. McLaughlin kept many elements of the original but omitted a few characters and made the role of the Chorus is more developed. When watching this Greek tragedy, you will be unable to keep from linking many of the subplots, themes and characters to the works of Euripides, Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill to name a few. “The Oresteia” is probably the tree from which all the branches of classical and modern drama grew. However, don’t expect a pompous classical drama. This one has murder, adultery, sibling rivalry and lust of power.
“The Oresteia” will run from April 30th until June 1.
Tickets are available online.
I had a chance to interview actress Kelley Curran who plays Clytemnestra, one of the main characters.
Kelley Curran is an award-winning actress based in New York City. Prior to this role, she was seen opposite Glenn Close in The Public Theater’s “Mother of the Maid”. In 2017 she made her Broadway debut opposite Kevin Kline in Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter.” That year she also received the National Theatre Conference Emerging Professional Award. Kelley has spent much of her career working off-Broadway on both new and classic plays, including “The Winter’s Tale” with Theatre for a New Audience, “The Outsider” at Paper Mill Playhouse, as Elinor Dashwood in Bedlam’s “Sense & Sensibility” and Wendy in Bedlam’s adaptation of “Peter Pan,” “The DingDong” at The Pearl Theatre Company, for which she was nominated for a Drama League Award alongside Lin Manuel Miranda, Lupita Nyong’o, Michelle Williams, Jessica Lange, and Jeff Daniels, “’Tis Pity She’s a Whore” with Red Bull Theatre Company for which she earned the Joseph A. Callaway Award for the best performance by an actress in a classic play in New York City, and in the 2011 revival of “Angels In America” with the Signature Theatre Company. She has worked regionally at The Shakespeare Theatre Company, The Guthrie, Portland Center Stage, Shakespeare & Company, and with The Acting Company, among others. She can be seen in season 6 of NBC’s “The Blacklist,” and in the recently released feature film “The Man Who Killed Hitler and then The Bigfoot,” starring Sam Elliott and Aidan Turner. Kelley received a BA from Fordham University at Lincoln Center, where she returned this year to teach Acting Shakespeare.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where you were born? Where do you call home, now?
I was born in Albany, NY, the second of four children. I grew up there, just outside Albany, until I left for college at Fordham at Lincoln Center in 2002. I’ve been based out of New York City ever since, and though I frequently travel for work, Brooklyn has been my home for many years now. I currently live there with my husband, Vince, and our cat, Hank.
Before this role, which character or characters that you have portrayed is your favorite(s) and why?
Two of my favorite characters I’ve ever played were Elinor Dashwood in Bedlam’s ‘Sense & Sensibility’ off-Broadway, and Hermione in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ also in New York with Theatre for a New Audience. Elinor, to me, is simply one of the most sublime creations in Western Literature. She has a tremendous capacity for love, grief, and hope, storming through her body, but she feels so deeply responsible to keep a lid on her feelings for years and years in service of her family and their needs, to the point where the catharsis for Elinor at the end of that story is unrivaled in my experience as an actor. Hermione is another miraculous character, the brilliant and beloved Queen of Sicilia, wrongly accused of adultery by her husband. In her trial scene she makes one of the strongest, most soaring arguments in the entire Shakespearean canon. And she’s capable of a strength most of us can only aspire to in our finest moments.
I was playing Hermione at this time last year, and it’s an incredible contrast now to be playing Clytemnestra, another queen, and just as brilliant, but entirely incapable of forgiveness. After the murder of her daughter, Clytemnestra’s life is shattered by grief, and she becomes consumed by a blind rage. Hermione also suffers the loss of a child, but her life is resurrected through her own capacity for love and forgiveness. They are two VERY different queens. Neither of them is necessarily right nor wrong, but to me, they illuminate the choices we are capable of making in our lives, even after tremendous trauma. We can nurture hate, or we can nurture love, and whichever we chose will resonate in our children, and through the time to come, long after we are gone.
Are you a “method” actor or more classical in style and how is that reflected in this portrayal?
I’m not a method actor. Particularly not when working on something as tragic and potentially unrelenting as Greek Drama. I think there has to be space for levity and laughter in all rehearsal rooms, no matter the genre of play. In order to find joy and spontaneity in the investigation of a story, you have to walk that line of taking the work deeply seriously, without taking yourself too seriously. I can respect the notion of the “method” technique when it serves an actor, and certainly, when I’m working on a play I draw inspiration from everywhere during the day — poems, images, sounds, songs, colors — they all filter through the sieve of the story I’m living with, and I’ll use whatever is most evocative for me in performance. But there are, simply, technical logistics you must have command of to be able to tell a heightened language story clearly and specifically in an 800+ seat theatre, that no amount of method acting is going to help you with. I think a truly great actor must be really mentally sound and physically disciplined to reinvest in the work of telling a tragic story with generosity night after night, 8 times a week for any length of time. Though I wouldn’t say I’m classical in style, I am classically trained, and that training will support me in the telling of this particular story in this particular theatre. At this point, I have to trust that my training, my experience, and the work I’ve done in rehearsal will be present for me when it’s time to surrender to the depths of or achieve the heights that these plays ask us to reach. At the end of the night, I hope to be thoroughly exhausted, having left it all on stage, and not taking any of it home with me.
In Greek times the actors wore masks. If you were designing a mask for Clytemnestra what would she look like?
Well, Clytemnestra contains multitudes, so it’s hard to narrow this one down…but if I were designing a mask for her, she would look regal, judgmental, and very, very tired.
How does working on a Greek classical drama differ from working on more modern plays or are they similar?
I think we have to approach Greek drama in a similar way to how we approach modern plays, particularly ‘The Oresteia,’ which was the foundation for so many stories that would follow after it, and which, at its core is about a tragedy that befalls a powerful family, and how that tragedy ripples outward to affect the society this family leads. ‘The Oresteia’ is a story that has been retold for thousands of years because it hits on something at the very core of our humanity — loss, grief, the seductive nature of righteous vengeance, the violence we are capable of, and the justice we seek to achieve. The story takes place in a deeply patriarchal society where violence begets violence, and men are allowed to control what happens to women’s bodies in the name of a righteous God. If this doesn’t sound familiar, I’d be eager to know where you live. In ‘The Oresteia,’ and particularly in Ellen McLaughlin’s new adaptation of this play, that we have the privilege to premiere, the distance between the past and present is not very far at all.