`Agamemnon' still resonates

Review: This striking production makes a 24-centuries-old story new again.

September 12, 2001|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

Actor Jack Willis steps on stage, stops, and says: "Listen." For a long moment, he does, and so does the audience.

We hear the amplified sounds of waves, meant to transport us to a beach in ancient Greece. We hear each other cough and murmur, and are reminded that we're a community. And given the current attacks on the United States, that reminder is especially poignant and welcome. The opening moments of the Arena Stage production of Agamemnon and his Daughters capture us in body and spirit. We know immediately that we're in skillful hands. We sit back, and let ourselves be transported - individually and together.

And what a magical journey adapter Kenneth Cavander, director Molly Smith and the cast have fashioned. Agamemnon and His Daughters is Kenneth Cavander's melding of six plays written by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides documenting the curse on the house of Atreus.

When the cycle begins, the Greek army is stranded on the island of Aulis. To get the wind the ships need to sail to Troy, the commander, Agamemnon, is ordered to sacrifice his oldest daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis. (Agamemnon is Atreus' son; in Greek tragedy, children always pay for the sins of their parents.)

After much agonizing, Agamemnon agrees. He reasons that if he refuses, the battle-thirsty army will turn on him and murder his entire family. Sons die in battle all the time, he says. Is it worse that the war is claiming a daughter? His decision sparks a horrific chain-reaction of revenge.

Cavander's prose is colloquial, but that doesn't make it inelegant, and there are individual sentences that echo through 24 centuries to today. As one character says: "A curse is a living thing."

That accessibility, the ease with which the language is made fresh and relevant, extends to every aspect of this production. No sooner does the audience begin mourning the departure of one fine actor from the show when his character is slaughtered (virtually everyone gets slaughtered), than there's another terrific portrayal to thrill us anew.

The script requires breathtaking, hairpin changes in attitude from the actors - for instance, Iphigenia delivers a touching speech protesting her imminent sacrifice, and in her very next line, declares she's ready to die - and the cast is especially adept at making sense of these reversals.

Willis is a delight as Agamemnon. He's an earthy, politically astute, take-charge kind of guy, the kind who likes to grab the bull by the horns - but keeps discovering that this bull is sacred. Tsidii LeLoka gives us a Kassandra who has been driven nearly insane by her "gift." Kassandra can foretell the future, but is cursed to never be believed. (Cavander used the original Greek spellings for the characters, instead of the conventional Latin spellings.)

Andrew Long is superb as Aigisthos, a man who tosses off lies as offhandedly as if he were shooting crumpled-up wads of paper into a trashcan. And Natascia Diaz's Elektra is so consumed by grief over her father's murder that she has nearly stopped being human.

In addition, the set and lights by Pavel Dobrusky subtly help the audience understand the characters' emotions.

When Agamemnon is at an ethical crossroads, Dobrusky paints one out on the stage floor in white light against a blood red background. When Elektra is in the pits of despair, Dobrusky literally coops her up in one.

And in the final scene, Iphigenia performs on an elevated stage. That's appropriate; she's the only member of the entire family to perform a selfless act.

A lot of murder and mayhem is packed into the three hours, and toward the end, the audience starts to wonder if there's a point of some kind, a larger message we can take away with us. Yesterday, I would have said that the finale that Cavander chose fell flat. But, that was yesterday.

Cavander ends the cycle with Euripides' Iphigenia in Tauris, but superimposes on it words of his own. Those words reflect a philosophy seemingly borrowed from Sophocles, whose plays warn of the corrosive effects of unchecked anger on individual humans and society.

Then, the house lights go up. Like the ancient Coliseum, the audience surrounds the stage of Arena's Fichandler theater. We can't look at the actors without looking at one another.

Maybe that's the point.

Yesterday's performance was canceled in the wake of the terrorist attacks. To exchange tickets, call 202-488-3300.

Agamemnon and His Daughters

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 7.

Tickets: $32-$49

Call: 202-488-3300; or go online to www.arenastage.org

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