Thursday, November 01, 2007

Brave New World of the Eumenides

Director Nancy Smither's remarkable conception of the Aeschylus play The Eumenides restores the lustre of antiquity while breaking new ground. The play has been in production for the last week in October and the first weekend in November in Steinhardt's BlackBox Theatre at New York University. Smithner is known for an inventive physical approach to staging, the actors move with such imagination that the result is an original choreography born of passion and drama that allows characters to create worlds that intersect and collide. Moreover Smither empowers the actors to find their own space and strength, and their characters emerge with a kinesthetic energy that shapes their destinies.

To be sure, on one level The Eumenides deals with Orestes' tragic and brutal murder of his mother Clytemnestra to avenge the death of his father, Agamemnon. Although vividly remembered through Smither's brilliant use of puppetry, shadows, and visual re-enactments, these events have taken place prior to the time of the play. What now remains is the cultural shock and fury, made compelling through the presence of the Furies, a chorus of underworldings who seek revenge for the spilling of one's own blood, the son's stabbing of his mother. For them, this is the only crime. Apparently Agamemnon deserved to die because he had only sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to appease the daughter of Zeus, Artemis who was the twin sister of Apollo. Clytemnestra was also a bit miffed that Agamemnon had returned from his victory with the spoils of war: the lovely and provocative Cassandra as his slave and concubine.

The atmosphere of the world of The Eumenides is a fantascape, brimming over with the remnants of reality, the underworld, the imagination, and fantasy, like a visual and sound manifestation of Ligeti's Atmospheres that introduces the other worldliness at the end of Stanley Kubrick's 2001. This brave new world has been achieved through Tim McMath's chimerical set, Deborah Constantine's evocative lighting, and composer Rob Schwimmer's magical acoustic environment. Schwimmer has employed electronic instruments of the past such as the Theremin, which adds to the distant, other worldliness that pervades the atmosphere of the play. These elements serve to fuse the unity of the vision as the play is performed from beginning to end without intermission.

One might surmise from the many layers of figures and characters, that ultimately the issue of justice becomes a major concern. Indeed, whose justice? We may well wonder, and at the end we may still be in doubt, despite the clear resolution. The Eumenides is the third play in the trilogy, The Oresteia. The first play, Agamemnon, tells the story of Agamemnon's return from Troy and his murder at the hand of Clytemnestra. The second, The Libation Bearers, deals with the revenge of Agamemnon's children. Thus in the third play, Aeschylus is concerned with justice and the values of a new culture and emergent democracy.

Smithner's direction understands that the Furies emerge as the star of the play, thus underscoring the fact that the role of the Greek chorus has been transformed into the main character of the play. The chorus no longer merely makes commentary on the acts of the main characters. The chorus creates the action and moves the play forward. Smithner seizes this opportunity the develop each of the Furies in interlocking individual characters that are distinctly personal, but also part of the group. In fact, the Furies are likely unaware that the very nature of their group mirrors the democracy that finds new definition as the play unfolds. They press charges against Orestes and demand that he be punished for the murder of his mother.

The Furies form a compelling fabric for the play. Alecto played by Dean Amato was utterly relentless and in your face, while Lisha Brown as Mania seemed linked in her madness to the maniacal psychosis of Clytemnestra and her ghost, Praxidika played by Emily Weidenbaum was almost spiteful as the vengeful fury, complementing Ami Formica's Tisiphone as an avenger of murder, Erin Kaplan's Megaera, the grudging one, epitomizes the reluctance of the Furies to accept an new order, and Semina played by Lisa Vasfaido as the venerable one to offers distant hope for a new order. This is a vision of the Furies that emerges from director Smithner and the talented cast, who have created an intelligent commentary on the play through subscribing to a new and insightful vision.

We understand from the outset, that this is to be a forthright examination of the facts as we are introduced to the story by our storytellers, David Altman and Jamila Khan who later enact the events surrounding Agememnon's death by his own sword in the hands of Clytemnestra. The Priestess played by Naomi Tessler underscores the moral undercurrents and also beautifully represents Iphigenia who is sacrificed by her father. Hermes is ably played as the messenger by Kyle Stockwell, sent to protect Orestes from The Furies. Orestes, the central figure of the trial is portrayed by Isaac Polanco as the son who feels the guilt of murdering his mother, but who has acted at the command of Apollo. Apollo as played by Mauel Brian Simons, is the essence of reason and clarity, even when provoked and goaded by The Furies.

Athena charges into the fray with incredible wit and timing, unlike any Athena I have ever imagined. Created by actress Erin Ronder and Smithner's deft directorial vision, Athena brings humor and charm to the play, while proving there is always more than one way to look at the facts. Athena accepts the Furies on her own terms and plants the seeds for their transformation into the Eumenides at the end. Ronder has a great sense of panache and timing, and we can appreciate that the elements of doom and gloom of any tragedy can be transformed by point of view. But The Eumenides is not a tragedy. It might be the very first morality play, but of course it ranges far beyond the scope of most present day moralities. The Eumenides is meant in the end to uplift, inspire, and instruct. We are treated to a trial by jury (actually drawn from the audience as citizens of Athens). Athena has the deciding vote in the event of a tie, and make no mistake, she will opt for a new vision of justice for the future in which the Eumenides become the pillars of a new and calmer social order.

It was a joy to see the richness of Aeschylus through the artful lens of these young actors from New York University under the creative vision of Nancy Smither whose staging creates the need for a new vocabulary of movement for actors. I cannot forget the haunting vision of Clytemnestra's Ghost played as a bizaare phantom by Nandini Naik. Just as the Furies have grudgingly accepted their new and more gracious (controlled?) role in society, just as the lights are beginning to fade to black, and just as we are comfortable in the vision that all is well in this new society, the provocative image of Clytemnestra's Ghost eerily appears, reminding us that nothing is ever the way it seems.

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