You can probably count on one hand the number of times you’ve seen ancient Greek theater performed live. That’s one reason the current indie Tacoma production of “Agamemnon” at Dukesbay Theater is worth seeing.
But there are plenty more, including the feminist take of Peter Meineck’s translation, clever staging by director Kathryn Philbrook, a grunge-rock score and some compelling acting by the cast of US Presents, turning this 2,500-year-old drama by Aeschylus into a complex contemporary meditation on war, violence, justice and responsibility.
First, the staging. It’s no mean feat to bring off ancient Greek theater in a way that makes sense to modern audiences: Written for a nonliterate crowd far more used to spoken oratory than we are, the monologues are long and verbiage complex.
Then there’s the convention of the chorus, a group that speaks together (mostly) to narrate plot and backstory, wax lyrical on themes, ask rhetorical questions and interact with characters in place of dialogue. In fact, “Agamemnon” is possibly the first Greek play where two characters actually talk to each other rather than the chorus. Action is narrated in stylized fashion, rather than actually happening, and the pace of events is operatically slow.
Philbrook and her cast succeed at transforming these conventions into gripping drama without losing authenticity. The chorus, clad in gray hoodies for both anonymity and age (they represent the old folk of the city of Argos), circle and chant with dancer-like precision, thanks to choreographer Katie Lappier, alternating lines and imbuing their recitations with real passion. More dances illustrate the descriptions of history (King Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia to ensure his ships invade Troy safely) and characters (the seductive Helen of Troy, cause of the whole war) like ancient Greek artwork.
A score by Alexander Ingle combines dirtied-up rock with wistful guitar, adding to both ambience and structure, and works brilliantly for the actual songs, like Cassandra’s devastating prophecies. The minimalist set by Matthew Philbrook and Brittany Porter of four diagonal “cones” of thread, uplit with color, segue perfectly between doorways, ship riggings and thunderbolts from Zeus.
But the cast is what carries “Agamemnon” into a new, contemporary dimension. The plot of a wife who murders her husband after he returns from 10 years at war both to avenge his killing of their daughter and a mass murder by his father might at first seem bizarre and remote: Sacrificing your child for safe travel? Butchering your nieces and nephews and serving them up for dinner to your brother? But the Meineck translation and the complete conviction of the cast brings it into today’s realm of long wars, vague victories and what vengeance really brings you.
As Agamemnon, Brian Wayne Jansen is a little histrionic but believable in his hubris; Alex Johnson makes a sexy Paris and a returning soldier traumatized by war. Emily Robinson is wryly ironic as the watchman who gets first news of the Greeks’ victory over Troy, and sultry as Helen. Glenn Guhr is solid as both Menelaus (Agamemnon’s kingly brother, lost at sea) and the sociopathic Aegisthus (Agamemnon’s cousin, who returns to avenge that mass-cannibalism of his family). Carrie Ivory is eye-popping as Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess whose curse is never to be believed: Her song to Apollo is heart-rending and her march to her doom coldly condemns human violence.
But the star is, of course, Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra: the original Lady Macbeth who plots her husband’s murder while lovingly welcoming him back home. Samantha Story-Camp, in her last role before moving east, radiates strength and depth, going from smart leader frustrated by society’s gender bias to confident wife to crazy murderess, blood dripping from her hands onto her husband’s ekkyklema (a wheeled platform used in ancient Greek plays to bring dead characters onstage). The script helps with the feminist take on Clytemnestra, but Story-Camp brings her to raging, psychopathic life. Of course, Aeschylus spoils the whole thing by reducing her to a mere puppet of her lover Aegisthus, but you can’t have everything.
In an age where people still kill over age-old wrongs and glorify violence to ever-more-bloody ends, it’s good to be reminded that the Greeks lived through it all too — and expressed it in theater that’s just as relevant and poetic today as in 458 B.C.