Colin Johnson evidently had a contemporary war in mind when he decided to stage Oresteia: Before the Furies for Oakland's Round Belly Theatre Company. First performed in fifth-century Athens, Oresteia grapples with themes of vengeance, personal ambition, and government corruption — albeit on a primal level. The subject matter appealed to Johnson because it seemed to resonate with the current war in Iraq and subsequent economic meltdown (to him those two things are inextricably correlated). He got the idea of contemporizing a Greek tragedy several months ago, and at first had designs on the similarly themed play Lysistrata, but decided to go for something a little less obvious. Johnson's current production at Oakland's Noodle Factory attempts to foist modern themes on an ancient text without changing the original storyline. For a small black-box theater company, that's a rather ambitious project. Somehow the cast pulls it off with relatively few hitches.
This Oresteia is "slightly filtered" — as Johnson writes in his director's note — but only "slightly." To keep the play at a manageable two hours, Johnson expurgated some of the dialogue, mostly in places where characters appeal to the gods for guidance. (In fact, there are no gods in this production.) Still, he left large swaths of dialogue unadulterated, meaning the actors address each other in rather obtuse language. Add to that Johnson's personal interpretation of the play, which he interposes onto the source material just to complicate things. Johnson thought that each member of his five-person Greek chorus should have his own personality or backstory (most of which were developed through the rehearsal process). Ergo: a slutty Greek (Brittany Hogan), a little-match-girl Greek (Vicky Weng), a drunk Greek (Perry Aliado), a tough Greek (Paige Lubawy), and a "chorus leader" (Katie Meinholt), whose persona seems a little opaque. All wear rags, meant to show the toll that a ten-year war has taken on their economy. Johnson took a bit of poetic license in creating this downtrodden underclass, which doesn't really exist in the original story — though it's a fair bet that Argos suffered some form of economic recession as a result of the Trojan War. Nonetheless, it's one of the stronger elements of this adaptation.
In the upper strata you have the royal family: King Agamemnon (John Clevenger), who returns from a ten-year war only to be hatcheted by his beautiful and vindictive wife, Clytemnestra (Mary Guiver); Aegisthus (Josh Han), who seduces Clytemnestra and helps plot the king's murder; Agamemnon's son Orestes (Lucas Buckman), who avenges his father's death by stabbing his mother; and Orestes' sister Electra (Linda Landeros), who helps devise the revenge plot. As is the case in melodramas, these aristocrats are every bit as desperate and dysfunctional as their underlings, except that their scraps and mishaps always have vast social consequences. Johnson deliberately cast a middle-aged Agamemnon against a young Clytemnestra in order to create more of a rift between them. In this version it works, mostly because Guiver has the glacial beauty of a trophy wife. Plus, she looks good with an axe in her hand.
Clearly, Oresteia has a lot of slasher-film potential, and the actors seem to take pleasure in chopping each other up and watching the fake blood splatter. But the death scenes vary in quality. It might have behooved Johnson to prune the second act, which largely consists of Orestes and Electra plotting their revenge, but not actually carrying it out until the last twenty minutes of the play. The "plotting" is a lot less fun than the actual bloodbath, since it involves several tortuous monologues that seem to be about nothing in particular. To make matters worse, actors Buckman and Landeros fail to turn toward the audience, so we have to watch their entire recon mission in profile. That gets a little boring. Fortunately, Guiver almost makes up for it with her grisly death at the end. She emerges as the play's most promising star.
Perhaps the most interesting story here is that of Round Belly itself. Founded in 2008 by playwright Brian Quakenbush — who, at 29, is the company's oldest member — it produces roughly nine plays a year, ranging from Greek tragedy to Shakespeare to original material. The company even produced a 24-hour theater fest (in which plays are written and performed on the fly) in Quakenbush's backyard. Run as collective, Round Belly allows each member to assist in every aspect of the production. This type of sweat-equity program sometimes undermines the material, but also allows for some creative flourishes. In Oresteia, the actors used a workshop process to create their own character backstories. For the most part, they designed their own costumes, too. The score, composed by Jeff Kimmich and played on a laptop computer, uses found sounds to create a down-tempo, industrial soundscape. Thus, Round Belly compensates in creativity for what it lacks in resources. Johnson holds as gospel the idea that with a little elbow grease, small theater companies can produce just about anything. Even Greek tragedy.
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