The Oresetia Project: Adapted, modernized, and fused

As the School of Drama gears toward a more progressive repertoire, this season’s production of The Oresteia Project is a breathing example of cutting-edge theater. Each show reflects a trend in experimental theater, and the whole construct is a creative process of collaboration, innovation, and experimentation. The trilogy takes place in unconventional locations: the Purnell lobby, the Philip Chosky Theater, and the backstage of the Chosky. With tastes of Butoh and Kathakali dance, Sufi spinning, medical procedures, sacrificial rituals, rappelling, demons, and 1960s home life, this trilogy literally and figuratively transcends time, space, and reason.

The Oresteia, written by Aeschylus in the 5th century BCE, is the only Athenian trilogy to survive completely. The trilogy follows the curse on the house of Atreus through generations of rape, deceit, incest, murder, sacrifice, feeding people their own children in a stew — basically chaos. Under the meddling guidance of Apollo, each of the deceased must invariably kill another member of the family. The curse comes to a halt when Orestes avenges his father’s death by killing his own mother. The question arises: Must he be avenged for killing his mother, or was he simply ending the curse by avenging his father?

Agamemnon, the first part of the trilogy, focuses on revenge, blood, and sacrifice. Taking place in the Purnell lobby, the show leaves little to the imagination. The lobby is cloaked with a tapestry of crude and bloodied baby clothes meant to symbolize the spilt blood of innocents in the house of Atreus. While the “old man” chorus orates most of the story, the directors, Jed Allen Harris and Matthew Gray, chose to create a demon chorus to visually explain the curse.

The Choephorae follows in the style of avant-garde director Robert Wilson, who studies autistic children. Autistic children have no sense of empathy; they are unable to separate impulse from action. Slow and elegant movement relates this association between Orestes and an autistic child. As for the setting, The Choephorae is performed in an intimate version of the Chosky. The costumes, movement, and music are each a fusion of cultural elements from Nepal, Tibet, India, Russia, and Bulgaria. Encompassing a smattering of cultures, The Choephorae creates an unprecedented conversation between the gods and the mortals. We see a visual introduction of Orientalism in the juxtaposition of western and primitive characters; the gods and Aegisthus are clothed in modern-day suits, whereas the Greeks are in Japanese and Middle Eastern clothing. These seemingly disjointed symbols in The Choephorae justify themselves in the final show of the trilogy.

The Eumenides is an examination of “shame culture.” Orestes, the tragic hero, shoulders the guilt of the whole community. Based on the work of the Wooster Group (an avant-garde theater company), the performance is by far the most controversial of the three. The original text is undeniably misogynistic and, when performed in the 21st century, such issues cannot hide. The direction was an unexpected manipulation of the text that confronted these gender issues and modernized the conflict. For example, the male musical theater majors played the furies in drag. The production is set in the backstage of the Chosky theater, and what results is an interesting collage of different media and time periods. From references to both movies and YouTube to scenes imitating game shows, The Eumenides is quite modernized.

The Oresteia Project is the child of so many ideas and perceptions — it’s a spirited manifestation of postmodernism and the avant-garde at its best. While this production may be a time commitment, each installation is a visual feast and should inspire days of contemplation.