Quicksilver Takes On Crime And Punishment, Greek Style.
By Dave Irwin
AUGUST 10, 1998: IT'D BE EASY to accuse young Stuart Bousel of hubris--that pride which offends the gods--for adapting The Oresteia. How many 20-year-olds do you know brash enough to rewrite Aeschylus, one of the world's oldest playwrights? On the other hand, how many 20-year-olds do you know who'd approach the task by reading more than a half-dozen translations and then, dictionary in hand, read the work in the original Greek, as Bousel did?
The Oresteia, also directed by Bousel, is the fifth offering mounted by Quicksilver Productions since its founding last summer. The play follows that archetype for the dysfunctional family, the House of Atrius, through multi-generational murders and retributions. It's a challenging and sometimes flawed work that nonetheless is consistently engaging and well worth the effort, both for the company and the audience. This is not dinner theatre entertainment. But serious theatre-goers are encouraged to support this production, and the work of this ambitious troupe.
The Oresteia was first produced in 458 B.C. As originally written, it was a half-day combination of three plays, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides, plus a now-lost satyr-play for comic relief. Bousel has combined the trilogy into an approximately two-hour work which remains true to the story and spirit of Aeschylus, though not the staging and traditions of Greek theatre.
Understanding the context of those seminal days of theatre makes clear the Promethian task Bousel took on in creating his adaptation. Classical Greek theatre found its roots in Dionysian revels (tragedy comes from the Greek words tragos and ode or "goat song"). Theatre evolved from a drunken free-for-all in fertility worship to a series of scripted ritualistic presentations starting at dawn and concluding at noon. Stock elements such as the deus ex machina to drop and pluck gods on stage and stylized masks and costumes were required, as well as a massed chorus to comment on the action and pray to the gods. In their original form, there was also music and choreography, none of which has survived.
The works, attended by tens of thousands, were a combination of religious ceremony and spectacle, held together by a story. They were also important teaching tools for a populace still wavering on the cusp of civilized behavior.
In The Oresteia, Aeschylus, as the Martha Stewart of his time, felt compelled to remind folks repeatedly that cooking your brother's children in a stew and committing cannibalism was no longer socially acceptable. Indeed, the point of The Oresteia was the notion that murdering various members of your family because supernatural beings urged you to might be judged inappropriate behavior under some circumstances. The drama also introduced the crowd to then-new concepts of objective justice and trial by jury.
One problem is that the complex historical story, as familiar to the average ancient Greek as the Seinfeld characters are to us, requires extensive explanation to be understandable. (Try explaining why the Soup Nazi is funny to someone who's never seen Seinfeld.) Taking a quick refresher in the gruesome legacy of the House of Atrius, as well as the genesis of the Trojan War, will be helpful for those not already familiar with Greek literature.
In traditional Greek drama, much of this back-story role falls to the chorus, a convention that Aeschylus was just beginning to reshape. Bousel has reduced the chorus to a few lines spoken in unison for emphasis. Instead, he substitutes exposition by single characters or explicit action.
"I think the cutting of the chorus is justified," Bousel explained, "because it's just not applicable to modern times. The chorus doesn't work for modern audiences, unless it's done very tongue-in-cheek, or if the chorus is more a part of the play. There are long paeans that have no significance to the characters or the plot, they're just remnants of a hundred years prior to Aeschylus, when drama was a prayer ceremony. Aeschylus broke away from using the chorus as filler, but he didn't make it all the way there until Euripides which was written after The Oresteia. The classicists might want to kill me, but any director or actor, I think, is grateful."
Bousel, despite is age, is no tyro. He has acted in more than 20 plays, including Macbeth, Mother Courage and Her Children, and Medea. He has directed several times already, including The Fantasticks and Quicksilver's first production, Lysistrata. He has also written three original plays, two of which have been produced by the Old Pueblo Playwrights New Play Festival. An English major at Reed College, he's currently revising a fourth play.
Of his adaptation, he says, "Greek grammar and English grammar are like apples and oranges. So you lose all the original style. I tried to keep everything from the original content-wise, but it's basically my grammar." In retrospect, he admits, "I think there were a few places where I slipped up and became very '90s."
Another minor problem is some unevenness in the 22-member cast's acting skills. This is to be expected in a company dedicated to giving young actors an opportunity to hone their craft, and it's limited to a few of the secondary parts. All of the principals are completely convincing in their delivery of Bousel's script. DaleAnn Winnie is marvelously despicable as Clytemnestra, the wife who plots for a decade to murder her husband for sacrificing their daughter. Dean Hepker as her consort, Aegisthus, is perfect as the pawn who would be king. Eric Dominguez as Orestes seems overly histrionic as the hero caught between doubt and duty, but that relates to Bousel's conception of the character rather than Dominguez's abilities. Alba Jaramillo brings range and grace to her part as the beautiful but doomed Cassandra.
Especially delightful are the three Furies, who are continually writhing and hissing around the stage in their demand for Orestes' destruction. Played by Jasmine Koh, Robin Bousel and Raegen Pietrucha, they add a sense of supernatural insistence that helps drive the action. Especially effective is the moment when the Furies slip into darkness whispering Orestes' name menacingly, aided by cast members strategically placed throughout the entire space to create a stunning surround-sound effect as the scene fades to black.
Overall, The Oresteia represents a significant achievement for Bousel. While not a perfect victory, neither is it at all Pyrrhic--its few failings are small. As a learning experience for an ambitious and talented young man, it was well worth the quest. And where hubris is concerned, it's safe to say that Bousel's muse simply demands more from him than most. The tragedy would be if he didn't continue to aspire to those heights just beyond his grasp.
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