Monday, March 26, 2012

Off Off Broadway: Agamemnon Home

Joseph J. Menino as Agamemnon and Elise Stone as Clytemnestra in AGAMEMNON HOME
Last year, the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, located at 195 East 3rd Street, launched a three year celebration of ancient Greek drama, selecting for its first production, Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis.  Directed by Amy Wagner, that play, starring Joseph J. Menino as Agamemnon, Elise Stone as Clytemnestra and Kelli Holsopple as Iphigenia, was the first of three plays, all relating to the story of Agamemnon, that Phoenix would perform sequentially in 2011, 2012 and 2013.  (The other two, I mistakenly believed, were to be Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Sophocles’ Electra.)   Iphigenia in Aulis was a deservedly great success and, having enjoyed it immensely (see my review of March 4, 2011), I’d eagerly been anticipating this year’s production of Agamemnon.  Now, having just seen this year’s offering, I must say that I was a bit surprised and a bit disappointed but, at the same time, very satisfied.

For starters, contrary to what I had thought (my mistake, I’m sure, and not the Phoenix’s), what the Phoenix is staging this year is not a revival of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon after all but, rather, the world premiere production of Agamemnon Home, a play by the very talented British playwright Glyn Maxwell that is based on the original tragedy by Aeschylus but takes considerable liberties with the original work.  Consequently, it is quite a different kettle of fish from last year’s Iphigenia in Aulis.

To be sure, both plays were very ably directed by Amy Wagner, Joseph Menino again plays the role of Agamemnon, and Elise Stone again plays Clytemnestra, but Wagner’s direction and the personae of both characters are quite different this time around.  Agamemnon is not the heroic figure we’ve come to expect and, in his relationship with Cassandra (Kelli Holsopple, last year’s Iphigenia), his concubine and war prize, once a princess of Troy and an oracle whom no one believes, he tends to confuse her with the daughter he sacrificed.

In sum, one might say that last year’s work, relying on a fine translation of Euripides’ tragedy, was an excellent revival of a Greek classic whereas this year’s production, as a re-working of an old theme, is both more and less than that. As one who enjoys good revivals of the Greek classics, I was sorry not to be seeing Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.  In general, I prefer not to see the classics tinkered with.  But this re-working of the Aeschylus theme by Maxwell and its production by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble were so good that I still very much enjoyed the play.

The plot line of Iphigenia in Aulis is this: Helen, the wife of Menelaos, King of Sparta, has run off to Troy with Paris, a Trojan prince and all of the kings and leaders of Greece, including Agamemnon, Menelaos’ brother and King of Mycenae, have joined with Menelaos in a war against Troy to retrieve her. Agamemnon has been appointed commander of the combined Greek forces but they are unable to set sail for Troy because there is no wind to power their ships. Kalchas, a soothsayer, suggests that the goddess Artemis has withheld the winds and demanded the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia before she will allow Agamemnon and his troops to set sail for Troy.  As the play draws to a close, Iphigenia is sacrificed, the winds blow, and the Greeks set sail for Troy.

As Agamemnon Home begins, it is a decade later.  A lone Greek watchman on a clifftop outside Mycenae, Greece, (Craig Smith, the founder and co-artistic director of the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble) has been scanning the horizon night after night, hoping to perceive a pre-arranged signal - a bonfire lit on Trojan soil - that will mean that the Greeks have won the war.  And there it is!  Which means that Agamemnon and his men will finally be returning home.  Unbeknownst to him, both Agamemnon and Cassandra have already washed ashore.  Before long, another lone survivor (Josh Tyson), shipwrecked but now home from Troy, washes ashore as well.  At which point, it only remains for Clytemnestra to resolve her relationship with Aegisthus (Brian A. Costello), Agamemnon’s cousin and Clytemnestra’s lover in his absence - and to wreak her vengeance on Agamemnon for having killed their daughter.

In Maxwell’s rendition, Smith plays the role of the watchman in a droll, comedic manner, which lightens the mood of the play beyond anything we’d expect of Aeschylus.  Maxwell has also recruited the watchman’s three daughters, Photina, Thena and Alala (Amy Fitts, Zoe Watkins and Brittany Pooler) to act as a Greek chorus, an imaginative re-invention of the classic Greek conceit which works very well.  But the real star of the play is Elise Stone who channels Clytemnestra with a range and depth of emotion that makes this production truly memorable – even if it’s not the original Greek tragedy.

No comments:

Post a Comment