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Oresteia

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

You won't find Aeschylus's name on the front cover of the program of Oresteia, the new production from One Year Lease at Theatre for the New City. In fact, you'll be hard-pressed to find his name anywhere in the program at all until you reach the back cover. The famed ancient Greek playwright wrote the original titanic trilogy of plays, but that's not what's being presented here.

According to the program, what is being presented is a "translation and adaptation" by Iason Demos and Yiannis Papatheodorou, though this production goes a lot further than that. Not much remains of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, or The Eumenides, so perhaps it makes sense that Aeschylus's name is nowhere on the program's cover. Given what's onstage, he may have made a similar decision himself.

This production is mostly Ianthe Demos's domain. She has directed the production so that every moment displays the flair of one all-encompassing creative vision. That's what Oresteia does rigiht. Demos has set her production in a black box, a courtroom with the judge and jury upstage, the audience downstage, and additional playing areas on either side, boxing in his performers and creating an atmosphere rife with tension and possibility.

And the production starts out with great promise, with the goddess Athena arriving to preside over a hearing for Orestes, who stands accused of murdering his mother, Clytemnestra. The play's scenes provide the evidence of the trial, acted out for the judge, jury (the other players in the story, who take their place onstage when necessary), and the audience.

But the concept begins overwhelming the text early, relegating the poetry and meaning of the play to the background, while frequently overloud strains of original music (composed by Stephen Ahearn and Tom Bencivengo) threaten to drown out the dialogue. No one onstage seems to notice or care. They just go about their business, trapped in an emotional, high tension atmosphere that never reaches the audience.

But soon, even Demos's directing work seems desperate. A man eats an apple just in time to spit it up when he's murdered. Red sand is poured over the stage so it can be swept up at intermission. Red ropes become a cage for a prophetess, red poles a cage for Orestes, and so on. The production remains throughout visually striking yet emotionally empty. Very little of this communicates the story, but communicating a series of plays as detailed and intricate as those comprising the Oresteia in a running time of under two hours would be an almost insurmountable challenge even without the additional framing device.

Having a group of actors who aren't up to the challenge of filling in the gaps in the adaptation merely causes more problems. They're all highly energetic and willing, but are all young - many seem to be about college age, perhaps a bit older - and their work shows it. It's difficult to single any out (they're all at about the same level), though Damien Carney's Orestes and Patrick Wong's Apollo are, perhaps, a bit more restrained than many of the others.

This production of Oresteia, therefore, is recommended only for those who are already familiar with the original plays, and don't need to have the story (or who the author is) explained to them. Someone without that knowledge will get little more than a survey course in Greek drama, and one that will feel in too many ways hollow and unsatisfying.

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One Year Lease Theater Company
Oresteia
Through June 15
Theatre for the New City, 155 First Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 254-1109