Reinventing classics: 'Agamemnon,' 'The Mysteries' and 'After Miss Julie'
Stories of power, betrayal and sacrifice of innocents
Reviews by Lucy Komisar
It's not there are no new stories. Playwrights' fascination with reinventing the old ones is a combination of respectful homage and an assertion that the nature of peoples' personal and political relationships are in the fundamentals largely unchanging. Betrayal, for example, and the tension between the powerful and the powerless. There's also a playfulness at cutting and pasting to create a new vision out of the old cloth.
I've just seen three plays two in New York, one in London that rework some old favorites to splendid effect. Starting chronologically there are the Greeks, but then who would expect a rewrite of the Bible! Finish with a modern take on gender and class.
The elders of Argos, in gray great coats and fedoras, make it clear that Peter Meineck (translator/adapter) and Robert Richmond (director) think that not much has changed in the way men go to war since the ancient Greeks sent their ships against Troy. And that the excuse of defending the "honor" of Helen was just that an excuse as Clytemnestra (Olympia Dukakis), who breathes contempt for her duplicitous husband, Agamemnon (Louis Zorich), exhorts, "Don't turn your anger against Helen." The male ego that sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to get the gods to fill the fleet's sails is the same one who, Clytemnestra spits out, is "the seducer of every little trophy in Troy." He has brought back young Cassandra (Miriam Laube) as booty.
The lookout (a superb Louis Butelli), clownish in a wool hat, clings to a platform suspended from the ceiling by chains and seems to represent the ever-clueless public waiting helplessly to see what fate will bring. He is looking for the fires that will signal Greek victory in Troy. A gung-ho foot soldier (John Sierros) talks jingoistically about "the gods' justice" that calls for destruction of Troy and death to her citizens. He radiates the enthusiasm of a football fan.
So Aeschylus (525-456 BC) had it right. First comes the slaughter of the innocent and the young, starting with the children of Thyestes, who were killed by their tyrannical uncle Atreus (Agamemnon's father) and fed to the unsuspecting Thyestes. His curse is laid on the family. When war with Troy is launched, Agamemnon sacrifices his own daughter. There follow the young men killed on the field of battle and Cassandra, the plaything taken from Troy by Agamemnon.
The murder of tyrants begets more tyranny. Clytemnestra's lover, Aegisthus (given a stunning performance by Marco Barricelli), who is the surviving child of Thyestes and her partner in the regicide, wears his black jacket with a thuggish sense of entitlement.
With a minimalist set, the performance is enhanced by Richmond's dance-like movements, Meineck's lighting that moves like a spotlight on speakers, and the rumbling dramatic music of Anthony Cochrane. Meineck's translation is colloquial, yet it preserves the gravitas of the original.
Dukakis as Clytemnestra makes her human and contemporary and sometimes so natural the character seems underplayed. She erupts in riveting power as she calls down vengeance against her husband's bloody legacy.
Agamemnon, who arrives in an army jeep, has a sense of tragic nobility; this man ready to spill innocent blood is not portrayed by Zorich as a heinous villain just your ordinary (albeit cheating) husband.
Laube's Cassandra, Middle Eastern in her chants and flowing white robe, is a prophet who seems possessed by religious fundamentalism. This is a production that ties together the wars of the ages.
Ah, the evil of rulers and the slaughter of the innocents. Segue to the Bible.
Classic Stage director Brian Kulik takes up the subtle task of turning the Bible on its head by starting off with sometimes flippant versions of naïve 15th-century morality tales of the Old and New Testaments, adapted by Tony Harrison, a British poet and translator, and then moving to acerbic modern takes on those religious stories and myths.
Kulik's God (the avuncular Sam Tsoutsouvas) and his angels wear gray overcoats and scarves. It gives them a slightly corporate tinge. The sawdust floor is edged with plain tables that could be an old-fashioned schoolroom or library reading room, or is it a board room? Creation is efficient: snap, there are plants; snap, someone holds up a dead mouse.
Adam and Eve (Chandler Williams and Jennifer Rozell) arrive in the Garden. Yes, we know they were naked, but this kind of verisimilitude is tiresome. What about a less distracting body stocking? After all, did God wear a gray overcoat? Was Noah's wife a shrew? Are you getting into the Bible as real life? This is more like TV sitcom slapstick: the couple, donning yellow slickers, are drenched by pails of water.
We see also stunning tragedy: Abraham (John Rothman) about to kill his son Isaac (Michael Stuhlbarg) on God's orders. It makes you think about the fanaticism of people to whom God "spoke." It occurred to me more than a few times that this Isaac was mentally disturbed. What happens today to people who talk to God and kill?
Where is it all leading? Did you identify with "the mysteries" of the Middle Ages? Then shift to today where the stories, written by modern authors, bypassing tales of creation to depict the violence and oppression men wrought afterwards. If the "mysteries" expressed their authors' wonder, these stories reflect their cynicism.
Dario Fo, the radical and caustic Italian playwright, has written a hysterically funny satire on organized religion with the resurrection of Lazarus hyped as a media event. In "Raising of Lazarus," spectators from Bethany watch Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, jostling for a better view, pushing the short kid to the back. Hand waves and calls of "Jesus!" sound like the cries aimed at rock stars and other celebs. "Do the miracle, the fishes and the loaves!".
The Montenegrin Borislav Pekic's "Miracle at Bethany" adds a black comedy coda, with poor Lazarus (Sam Tsoutsouvas) protesting to the Sanhedrin elders that he doesn't want to keep getting resurrected again and again. Just let him die in piece!
Mikhail Bulgakov, the Russian satirist, in "Pontius Pilate" shows that Roman official (John Rothman) surrounded by black-booted thugs as he questions the young radical Jesus (Michael Stuhlbarg). The poor pompous autocrat is feeling sickly (too much drink) and is being worked over by his masseur. Jesus talks about power of the state, and says that every kind of power is a form of violence against people. But the Roman marks him as a subversive.
Fo's "The Fool Beneath the Cross," from his famous "Mistero Buffo," shows the crucifixion as brutal torture carried out by dice-shooting workers who hammer in nails while "Jesus" (Stuhlbarg again) screams. An ordinary guy, a fool (Bill Buell), wants to cut him down, but when he rolls the dice to win Jesus' freedom (Judas would die in his place), the martyr insists on staying on the cross to die for people's sins.
What will that get? "There will be something in gold, they will be diamonds." (Did you ever see the jewels of the Vatican treasury?) There will be killing in his name, "It's not worth the effort," screams the fool. So, who was the fool?
Mary (the powerful Carmen Roman) is quiet, desperate in her grief, and talks of the evils of war. Now the early personal tragedies of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and Christ become the mass social tragedies of our time. Suddenly, it comes together: a morality tale, just like in the Bible.
The acting is excellent and Kulik's direction brings heightened moments of comedy and tragedy to the stage.
The personal is also political, as dramas about power relationships show the way class and gender roles play out. Ironically, August Strindberg was a misogynist who believed women were "stunted ... foolish ... evil ... useful only as an ovary and womb." But the prism through which we (and perhaps some contemporary audiences) view the play today when it's placed in 1888 makes it clear that if Julie was stunted, it was by the restrictions on women.
Patrick Marber's take strikingly directed by Michael Grandage focuses more on class; his Julie seems too modern and independent to suffer limitations of her sex. She appears bored rather than repressed. Marber is making a subtle political comment: his Julie (Kelly Reilly) is the daughter of a Labor peer, and this is the celebration of the party's 1945 electoral victory held at his estate. In the original, the gentry and the common folk meet on Midsummer Eve, when "all of us are of the same class." But it's a phony equality. So, says Marber, is the politics that enshrines a Labor lord. In case it needs emphasis, this Labor peer despises the lower classes.
John the chauffeur (Richard Coyle) has panache, style, presence, more character than the manipulative Julie. Reilly plays her as sultry, even, rude, neurotic even hysterical, slutty in her tight red-flowered dress. He is more sophisticated than one might expect from a chauffeur.
He gives her a beer. They drink ironically "to socialism ... to the workers." "Now kiss my boot," she declares.
But this worker is self-assertive. He tells her she is patronizing to staff, then adds he knows she can't help it: "It's in your blood." He says, "We had a roll in the hay, forget it." She: "Remember your position." He: "Which one? There were so many."
Finally, class doesn't trump gender. A nobleman may take a servant mistress, but it doesn't work the other way around. Julie is the one who pays for breaking the rules. As for the upper classes, there's this quip to ponder, about the man the Labor party defeated in 1945: "The wine is like Winston Churchill: robust, full-bodied and finished."