What is justice? How can a killer be punished? Can murder ever be justified? Does violence ever end? These are the questions that Aeschylus asked in “The Oresteia,” his trilogy of tragedies written over two thousand years ago. And these are the questions that director Michael Kahn and playwright Ellen McLaughlin translate into this century with a stunning production of “The Oresteia”, an epic conclusion to Kahn’s illustrious tenure at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Shockingly relevant and powerfully dramatic…
“The Oresteia” is Ellen McLaughlin’s loose new adaptation of an ancient tale of sacrifice and vengeance, produced here for the first time. A tragedy born contemporaneously with democracy, it follows two generations of the cursed House of Atreus as violence rips their family apart. McLaughlin’s version of Aeschylus’s plays unfolds as King Agamemnon returns victorious from the Trojan War, having sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia for the sake of their triumph. His wife, Clytemnestra, has waited ten years to avenge her beloved child and does so in one murderous act that with horrifying consequences. Their other children, Orestes and Electra, are left in a bloody wake of grief and insanity, abandoned by the gods to decide their own fates.
Kahn’s Ancient Greece is almost something out of science fiction: a barren moonscape envelops the large Sidney Harman Hall, bleak rocks jutting into the starry sky. At its center is the actual House of Atreus, a metal monolith scarred with rust that begins to appear more and more like dried blood as the saga progresses. The set is one of two constants within the story, the other being an all-knowing ensemble of servants who serve as the Greek chorus. They take on the voices of caretakers, angry citizens, and even gods before resolving into their true purpose: a jury passing judgment on the actions of Orestes and Electra. Their dancelike movements and unified dress make them almost indistinguishable from one another, a testament to Kahn’s prowess in transforming an ancient Greek trope into an effective, modern theatrical device.
The actors in the production also bear the weight of making ancient characters feel vital again, doing so powerfully with vulnerable, raw moments that leave audiences catching their breath. The first of the House of Atreus to appear is Clytemnestra, played by an elegant Kelley Curran. Her deep, rich voice washes over the audience, dripping with thinly disguised venom or cloaked in all-out rage. Curran is, unexpectedly, a sympathetic figure in this play, making it all the more heartrending when she descends into madness and cynicism, betrayed by her children.
Josiah Bania, as Orestes, and Rad Pereira, as Electra, are intensely physical, their youth apparent in their every move. Bania’s performance is especially affecting as he is tortured by the voice of Apollo and then rendered numb, stuttering when the tension is relieved in the most terrible way. The force of their performances is always palpable in the air until the second act’s climax, when blood and water mix to create artful commentary on the nature of justice.
Shockingly relevant and powerfully dramatic, Michael Kahn’s final production with the Shakespeare Theatre Company is packed with moment after moment of intense action and heightened emotions, revealing the hidden impact within the world of Greek tragedy.
Advisory: Contains violence.
Running Time: Two hours and twenty minutes, with one fifteen minute intermission.
“The Oresteia” runs through June 2nd at Shakespeare Theatre Company, 610 F Street NW, Washington, D.C. Tickets can be purchased online, or by calling 202-547-1122.