A classic is reborn with the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s bold new adaptation of The Oresteia — but don’t worry: It dies multiple bloody deaths, too.
For the final production from the legendary Michael Kahn, whose career at STC spans nearly as many years as this critic’s life, we revisit one of the oldest surviving stories in theatre, Aeschylus’s cycle-of-violence trilogy about Clytemnestra (Kelley Curran), Agamemnon (Kelcey Watson), Electra (Rad Pereira) and Orestes (Josiah Bania). In a powerful, evocative update from playwright Ellen McLaughlin, nightmares, ghosts, vengeance, and a more-skeptical-than-usual chorus haunt the messy, messy House of Atreus.
And what a house! The set from Susan Hilferty (who also designed the costumes! are you kidding me?!) is staggering. During Oresteia’s run until at least June 2, Sidney Harmon Hall’s stage has been taken over by a vast, menacing home, appearing both eternal and ancient, with verdigris doors and walls so rusty they sometimes look like they’re bleeding, all of it nestled in a canyon that starkly resembles a pile of bones, underneath cold but watchful stars.
The doomed parents and children who walk through this house’s door — and scream behind its windows — have had their motivations streamlined and reshuffled from their classical iterations, but the characters are not updates. McLaughlin and Kahn are more interested in archetypes than in trying to cram them into 21st century men and women.
And the cast, eloquent and sad, is up to the challenge. Pereira plays Electra as a powder keg waiting to go off — mourning may not become her, but wrath sure does, though Electra may bite off more than she can chew. Bania’s poor Orestes enters as a hot mess and doesn’t get much better, though the actor himself never looks lost, even when it comes to rending his shirt and channeling displeased gods. Watson plays the great warrior-king Agamemnon as constantly trapped, but also constantly on a precipice of change, never sure of what’s under his feet.
And standing at the center — as towering and essential as that blighted house itself — is Curran’s performance as Clytemnestra, one of the best you’ll see on a Washington stage this year. With a mile-long emotional range and what was clearly a careful examination of both the fresh and dusty texts, Curran keeps the tragedy from drowning in its own gore.
Together, they struggle with a murder cycle so vicious one wonders if it can ever end — but end it must, the chorus tells us. And they see a lot.
Michael Kahn will be greatly missed in the D.C. theatre scene. Anyone unfamiliar with why should look no further than this.