The ancient Greek playwrights didn’t fool around. They knew exactly what needed to be dealt with, and they did so head-on: the poisonous nature of war and its bitter fallout; the steep price of betrayal; the hunger for vengeance (a polite term, perhaps, for justice); how once a cycle of violence is set in motion, it will haunt generations to come.
Court Theatre’s stark but scorching new production of Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon” — the second in a trilogy of plays translated with clarity and poetry by Nicholas Rudall, directed with sinewy precision by Charles Newell, and produced over three seasons — is a fine example of the economy with which the Greek tragedians could work. It also is an example of how the ritualistic aspects of that ancient society can be made to feel thoroughly modern simply by remaining true to their essence.
A sense of death and foreboding is at work from the moment you take your seat at Court. Anchoring Scott Davis’ imposing all-black set is a Greek Revival style town home of the sort you can still see in New York’s Washington Square (a brilliant bit of “updating”), with a massive door at the top of a stairway. This is the home of the victorious general, Agamemnon — heir to the royal House of Atreus, husband of Clytemnestra, and father of Iphigenia, Orestes and Electra.
‘AGAMEMNON’ Highly recommended When: Through Dec. 6 Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Tickets: $45 – $65 Info: (773) 753-4472; www.CourtTheatre.org Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission
The play is set on the very night that Troy has been captured by the Greeks after a devastating war that has lasted 10 years, and was fought over nothing more than the abduction by Paris, Prince of Troy, of the beautiful Helen, wife of Agamemnon’s brother. Adding further poison to this war is the fact that in order to set the Greek fleet in motion so that it could sail to Troy, Agamemnon had agreed to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, in exchange for the needed winds.
At the the very start of the play, a male chorus (Gary Wingert, Alfred H. Wilson and Thomas J. Cox , all superb, and richly individualistic) and an aristocratic young boy (Michael Ghantous) gather before Agamemnon’s house in the city of Argos. They tell us of how Clytemnestra (the formidable Sandra Marquez, in a masterfully controlled slow burn), who they describe as a woman with the instincts of a man, has presided over the city during her husband’s long absence, and managed to keep control. And they are joined by a Herald (the wonderfully animated Gabriel Ruiz), who confirms the victory of the Greeks, and recounts the terrible storm that may have swallowed up the ships carrying most of the returning soldiers.
But Agamemnon (Mark L. Montgomery, who captures all the signs of an emotionally burnt out yet still arrogant man) is a survivor. And when he arrives in his carriage, and is reunited with his wife, there is a distinct chill in the air. That chill turns into a blazing fury after he reveals the “spoils of war” he has brought home. Her name is Cassandra (Adrienne Walker, with a haunting voice, is riveting as the exotic, terrified beauty), and she is now his lover/slave. She possesses the power of prophesy (including knowledge of her own fate), but has been cursed so that nothing she prophesies will be believed.
Clytemnestra is a woman of action who will not be scorned, and will not be disrespected by Agamemnon. So, with a little help from her lover, Aegisthus (Michael Pogue as a perfectly icy opportunist), there will be blood, and soon.
The whole nightmarish “homecoming” unfolds in an ominous, airtight 90 minutes. And just before it is over we are tipped to the real tragedy here — the fact that this is only the beginning of ever more carnage to come. Tune in next season for Part III.