Sticks and Stones 

Two black-box theater companies use their resources wisely.

When faced with a Greek tragedy as daunting as The Oresteia, most theater companies can't resist turning it into an anti-war allegory. Ragged Wing Ensemble went the other route entirely. Its new, highly condensed Oresteia — called So Many Ways to Kill a Man — hones in on a domestic drama while deemphasizing the war abroad. Scripted by Amy Sass (who also stars), So Many Ways is a tale of double homicide: Queen Clytemnestra (Sass) does a hatchet job on both her husband Agamemnon (Keith Davis), and his mistress Cassandra (Anna Shneiderman). But it's more than mere revenge fantasy. Sass uses the Trojan War as a backdrop for a script that's actually about sex, gender, and power. She brings depth and complexity to the three principal characters.

A lot of the play's success owes to Sass' ability to work in threes. Right away, she foregrounds the love triangle, a dynamic made complicated by each character's backstory. Clytemnestra is the self-described "viper" sister of beautiful Helen, whose abduction caused the Trojan War. A long-entrenched feeling of inadequacy taints her marriage to King Agamemnon, who, like most Greek warriors, is a bit of a sex predator. He kidnapped Clytemnestra when she was young, made her bear four children, then set off for Troy and found a replacement. In the meantime, she became an embittered, cigarette-smoking femme fatale. There's an odd symmetry between the wicked queen and her rival Cassandra, who has the opposite temperament. Shneiderman plays Cassandra as a guileless, lovelorn wimp who falls for her captor just a little too easily. The women's tense relationship is best encapsulated in the moment that Clytemnestra tenderly kisses Cassandra, while sticking a knife in her back.

It takes a lot of stamina for three actors to mount an epic Greek tragedy (complete with a three-puppet chorus), and Ragged Wing's production — while creative — gets a little spotty in places. Sass uses several devices to streamline the original text, from having the puppets read parts of it in a newspaper (as though the misadventures of Greek aristocrats were grist for a Page Six gossip column), to filtering some of Clytemnestra's monologues through a song-and-dance number (written by Shneiderman). Some innovations work quite well, like turning Clytemnestra's estranged daughter Electra (also Shneiderman) into a punk rocker, and son Orestes (also Davis) into a boozy, Hawaiian-shirted gambler. Other times, the company trades cute stagecraft for substantive content: The song-and-dance bits work in isolation but don't really propel the action of the play. Nonetheless, it's well-conceived overall, especially for three people.

Oakland's similarly small-scale, equally ambitious group TheatreFIRST began its season last week with Stones in His Pockets, Marie Jones' comedy about two extras working on a Hollywood film set in Ireland. Stones is partly about the friendship that grows between Charlie Conlon (Clive Worsley) and Jake Quinn (Kevin Karrick) as they toil on the set of The Quiet Valley for a mere forty pounds a day. It's partly about a cruel form of imperialism, as the Americans capitalize on the dreams and delusions of working-class Irishmen. It's partly about the permeability between film and real life: Not only do Charlie and Jake become accomplices in their own exploitation; they also try to shill their own script to the directors. On a more abstract level, it's a play about working very hard toward something, even when the benefits are illusory.

Stones in His Pockets is apropos for a theater company that appears to have suffered its own share of setbacks in the past year. Now under the artistic directorship of Michael Storm, TheatreFIRST recently moved into the Marion E. Geene Theatre inside Oakland School of the Arts, which will hopefully become its new home. The space is still quite raw but big enough to install a proscenium stage or do theater in the round, and equipped with an incredibly clean sound system. It's ideal for a play like Stones, which calls for a spare set (a dresser, a stool, a wooden chest, and a small bench) and a two-man cast (the actors share fifteen parts). The play could easily fall apart in less-capable hands, but Worsley and Karrick are old hats at this. Worsley, in particular, knows how to switch bodies (and genders) with ease. Not only does he play blue-collar Charlie and a host of other blokes; he also transforms himself into the fey Hollywood actress Caroline Giovanni — and manages to do so without looking too much like a man in drag.

Stones in His Pockets and So Many Ways to Kill a Man both succeed on the merits of a few good actors, deft stage direction, and rigorous imagination. Above all, they milk their source material without forcing any political themes that aren't already in the text. Having that sense of restraint is a feat in itself.

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