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‘Oresteia’ offers modern twist

Contemporary version of ancient Greek drama focuses on family bloodshed

The popularity of sex and violence in entertainment is not a recent development, said David Jones, a UNM English and theater professor.

Jones is the director of a multimedia production of the “Oresteia” trilogy, written by Aeschylus around 400 B.C., which opens tonight at Theatre X.

Produced by the Theatre and Dance Department, the story centers on the cycle of bloodshed within the family of Agamemnon, king of the ancient Greek city-state Argos. Helen, Agamemnon’s beautiful sister-in-law, has run off with Paris of Troy. In response, Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus decide to attack Troy.

To improve their chances in the war, Agamemnon kills and eats his eldest daughter in a sacrificial gesture to the gods. Ten years later, he returns from the war accompanied by his new slave/concubine, Cassandra. Queen Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, welcomes them home. Then, while the king and his concubine are in the bath, she stabs them to death.

Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, returns to Argos and kills his mother to avenge his father’s death. Orestes is driven mad by the Furies, whose job it is to punish and torment criminals. Orestes becomes the defendant in the first-ever jury trial, with the goddess Athena presiding as judge, the god Apollo as defense attorney and the Furies as prosecutors.

The jury ends in a deadlock, and Athena casts the tie-breaking vote to acquit Orestes. To soothe the Furies’ anger, she transforms them into the Eumenides, who dispense blessings instead of curses. Orestes gets his sanity back, and the cycle of bloodshed ends.

Elizabeth Cahn, program services coordinator for the UNM Women’s Resource Center, says she has mixed feelings about the on-campus production of a play that contains so much violence against women. She said that Orestes’ acquittal sends a sexist message.

“What it says is that it’s more acceptable for a son to kill his mother than it is for a wife to kill her husband,” Cahn said.

Sandrea Gonzalez, director of the Women’s Resource Center, is supportive of the production.

“I’m not into censorship,” Gonzalez said. “There’s something to be learned from it, and I hope they have a discussion that deals with violence against women and how it’s presented in the classics.”

Actress Mimi Moss said sexism isn’t the point.

“I don’t think the intention is sexist at all,” said Moss. “The intention is for Athena to end the violence and stop the cycle.”

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Moss, a junior art history major, plays two characters: Iphigenia, the princess who is sacrificed, and Athena.

“It’s pretty intense being a sacrificial victim and coming back as Athena, this bearer of happiness,” Moss said.

Moss brings a goddess-like presence to the role of Athena, and her portrayal of Iphigenia is equally convincing. Kate Schroeder, as Clytemnestra, is unnervingly effective, and Emily Hermansen does a powerful job in the role of Cassandra. Chad Brummett, who plays Orestes, brings an extraordinary level of humanity to the main character.

The script is a contemporary version by Ted Hughes, the late British poet laureate.

“Hughes seemed to enjoy the raw, bloody aspect of Greek tragedies,” Jones said.

The script is packed with beautiful language, however gory its content might be. Hughes’ translation stays true to the original, with the acts of violence taking place offstage. But Jones’ decision to show the killing of Iphigenia onstage makes it clear that he doesn’t intend to pull any punches.

It is chilling when the blood-soaked Clytemnestra, standing over the corpses of her victims, describes the sound of Agamemnon’s blood spurting onto the walls of the bath.

The stage design utilizes chrome and mirrors, and it makes the set seem like a techno club. The costumes are modern, with suits and ties for the men, dresses made of shiny fabrics for the women and dark sunglasses for the politicians.

The chorus is portrayed as a rabid gang of paparazzi that films everything. Digital video feeds projected onto the palace walls give the show a larger-than-life feel. The barefoot Furies are costumed in black lace and seem like a gang of black widows as they slither around, taunting Orestes.

These different elements could easily get out of control, but Jones puts the pieces of this puzzle together with great skill. The result is an extremely powerful evening of theatre. However, it is not recommended for the faint of heart.

“The Greek characters don’t pussyfoot around,” said Jones.

The show runs tonight, Saturday, Sunday and March 7-10 at Theatre X in the basement of the Fine Arts Building. Call 277-4596 or 851-5050 for ticket information.

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