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"L'Orestie" d'Eschyle in Paris
Electra, embraced by the Chorus leader and surrounded by the Chorus in Choephores, part 2 of "l'Orestie." Photo by Alain Fonteray.
Translated and Directed by Olivier Py
Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe
place de l'Odéon
Closes June 21.
(00 33) 01 44 85 40 40
To have vengeance or to have justice, that's the question. At least since the premier of Aeschylus' Oresteia in 458 BCE, the answer has been to have justice. The problem, which this trilogy of plays continues to make abundantly clear, is that ideas of justice are human-made. Laws give us rules to play by, but that doesn't mean they satisfy everyone. In fact, if they don't leave you with a feeling that you got revenge, then they may feel distinctly less than just.
Orestes, the character who gives his name to this trilogy, is acquitted of the murder of his mother (who killed his father for sacrificing their first-born daughter in the interest of war). Orestes' defense, provided by the god Apollo, rests on the idea that a mother is really not a blood relation, but just a vessel into which he father—the true parent—deposits seed. So, killing a stranger who murdered your parent is defensible homicide. That the father, Agamemnon, and the defending god, Apollo, are played at Paris's Oden-Theatre de l'Europe by the same actor (a slightly world-weary, slightly arrogant Philippe Girard) just ups the male rights ante.
Director Olivier Py's (he's also the translator) knockout production does not back away from the sexism in this argument. In fact, it doesn't back away from anything. It is a theatrical tour-de-force at every level, seeming to thrive on the axiom—so appropriate for Greek tragedy—"go big or go home."
There is little here that hasn't been tried before. The 500 square foot drape that vanishes in the blink of an eye into a hole in the wall it's been covering; the rainfall in a proscribed area; the three-tiered scaffolds that rotate and interlock, creating alternately public and private spaces writ large or boxed in; the stage covered with sand; the ghost wandering through the final scenes as a reminder of what kicked off the action in the first place. Singing chorus? Check. String ensemble onstage? Check. Hero arriving in a real automobile driven onstage through a door that opens onto what looks like the street? Check. Male and female nudity, cross-gender casting, bloody body organs for Calchas' soothsaying—it's all there.
The issue, though, is not whether or not you've seen any of this before (did I forget the characters dumping buckets of water over their heads at unanticipated moments or the soldier walking into his own grave as he finishes his last speech?). The issue is whether or not Py's work in tandem with set and costume designer Pierre-Andre Weitz's is arresting and thought-provoking, and the answer is resoundingly yes.
One of Py's ongoing tropes is the mirror. The set is metallic. Besides that, in each of the three plays, one or more characters carries a small mirror that deliberately flashes random light in spectators' eyes. In "Choéhores" (Captives, but usually translated as "Libation Bearers"), the returning Orestes is trailed by his friend Pylades, who follows him with a mirror and offers an unforgiving reflection whenver Orestes' courage seems to wane.
Py also ties the three plays together with objects that get passed around and that change meaning over the course of the trilogy. Clytemnestra's red gown in the first play is made of exactly the same fabric as the tapestry on which she gets Agamemnon to walk to his doom. In "Choephores," the fleshy, effeminate Aegisthus (played creepily by Michel Fau) is draped in the same swath of fabric, which Orestes takes up after he kills his mother, whereupon he immediately starts losing his sense of wellbeing. Nazim Boudjenah, who also doubles as Calchas, is an athletic and effective Orestes, alternately impulsive and scared, and generally in need of a lot of guidance.
Any modern interpreter of this trilogy has to come to terms with the chorus. Actually there are three choruses, and, not only do they have the lion's share of the lines in the first of the plays, but they all serve different functions. The old men in "Agamemnon " give backstory and deal with their king's murder. The Asian women in "Choéhores" are hired mourners. The famous furies of "Eumenides" actually oppose the titular hero and would like nothing better than to see him suffer. Py separates each chorus into a leader, who speaks and interacts with the other characters, and a quartet of singers, who have all the parts that are philosophical or poetic. They sing in ancient Greek and their lyrics are projected in French supertitles above the stage. As the singing chorus echoes Cassandra (Alexandra Scicluna), whose curse is that no one believes her prophecies (punishment for just saying "no" to a horny Apollo at the last minute), Py stages a nifty irony. The speaking chorus leader who interrogates Cassandra really has no idea what she's talking about; the singing choral quartet who interact with her actually do seem in tune with her, but the very language in which they convey her feelings needs to be translated for us, too, while remaining invisible and unintelligible to the part of the chorus (the leader) who is trying to get information. Woman speaks truth; man doesn't get it; audience needs help, too. Old story.
Which returns us to the question of sexism and how important a woman's life is in the realm of Aeschylean justice according to Py (who makes his own cameo appearance as the Watchman at the opening of the trilogy). Nada Strancar is easily the most masculine Clytemnestra imaginable this side of actually being played by a man. Sinewy, deep-voiced, and believably ruthless, she stomps as often as she sashays, and any lines referring to her having the wherewithal of a man are underscored. The leader of the Furies (Anne Benoit, who also doubles as Orestes' nurse) is fat, slow-moving, and, in every way the antithesis of Athena, whose tie-breaking vote for Orestes' acquittal instantiates Athenian justic. Athena is played by the lithe Frédéric Giroutru, and no attempt is made to hide the fact that the actor is male, underscoring the plays' gender economy: woman as man is presumptuous; man as woman models perfection; woman as woman needs to be put in her place. Although Athena promises the Furies a place in her city, her argument feels in performance as it reads on the page—compensatory. And Benoit's stubborn commitment to motherhood and passion has no place in the emerging patriarchy of rational argument.. Her repetitive harrangue is intentionally bleached in performance of sympathetic possibilities.
But maybe that's the point. The vendetta is destroying the family. The Furies are wearing everyone down. Orestes is exhausted. Suddenly any law seems better than more of the same bloodshed and vindictiveness. If this is justice in action, though, anyone can see that we ought to be able to do better. In court, that is. In theatrical terms this version sets a benchmark.
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