theater review

At the Armory, an Oresteia That’s Barely Greek

From Robert Icke’s Oresteia at the Armory. Photo: Joan Marcus

Legend has it that the first performance of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, in 458 B.C., terrified people. When the Furies appeared onstage, with snakes for hair and blood oozing from their eyes, children fainted; grown men pissed themselves; pregnant women spontaneously miscarried. Dubious as this poorly sourced anecdote may be, it weighed on my mind as I entered the Park Avenue Armory for Robert Icke’s Oresteia. Like the Athenian audience two and a half millennia before me, I felt fear.

Part of it was the space itself. Enormous, cavernous, the Armory’s performance hall is reconfigured for every project, and for Icke’s Oresteia (running in repertory with Icke’s Hamlet), you must navigate a complicated labyrinth of vertigo-inducing stairs just to find your seat. Though the air is pleasantly cool, Hildegard Bechtler’s set, which looks like a sleek new Apple Store trapped inside a crumbling ancient ruin, is much chillier. Monitors scattered throughout the Armory — not just the Drill hall but the whole majestic building, even in its lush Gilded Age reception rooms — display a digital countdown to curtain time. It takes you a moment to notice the ominous ticking that echoes through the space.

Alongside this pleasurably theatrical foreboding, however, I felt a deeper dread. We fear what we don’t understand, and the Greeks are hard to understand simply because they’re just so ancient. (How ancient is Aeschylus? He is credited with the game-changing innovation of adding a second actor to the cast.) The plot of the Eumenides, the third play of the Oresteia trilogy, hinges on the scientific “fact” that mothers contribute no genetic material to babies, and therefore murdering one’s mother carries less moral weight than murdering one’s father. It would have been performed by actors in masks.

Icke anticipates this fear, and his whole production is conceived to protect us from it. The first line here, invented by Icke, is spoken by a character who doesn’t appear in the original Aeschylus. It’s the prophet Calchas (played by Michael Abubakar), listing various religions’ names for God: Yahweh, Allah, the Almighty, the Godhead, the Lamb. The list is heavy on the monotheism, as if to reassure us that the ancient Greeks were just like us, really — Artemis and Apollo and Athena are basically Yahweh, who is basically Jesus. Committing to this logic, Icke’s Oresteia removes all references to the Greek gods of the original story. His characters refer only to God, singular.

To some degree, this Oresteia is less an adaptation than an original play about the house of Atreus. (Unlike Aeschylus’ version, it has natural dialogue, onstage action, and actors’ maskless faces.) If anything, its first and longest act seems to be an adaptation of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis (though Euripides, unlike Aeschylus, doesn’t get his own bio in the program). It focuses on King Agamemnon’s fateful decision to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia (played on the night I attended by a spritelike Alexis Rae Forlenza), an event occurring ten years before the beginning of the original Oresteia. It’s an understandable creative choice, since Aeschylus’ text assumes, like a Marvel movie, that the audience knows the lore already. For modern audiences, Iphigenia’s sacrifice is the most poignant element of the story, and it makes sense to portray it onstage. Angus Wright is a compelling Agamemnon, rangy and silver-fox handsome with the brow of an eagle and an invisible weight on his shoulders. When his daughter dies in his arms, his grief and guilt are mesmerizing. But since Icke’s text does not acknowledge the existence of the goddess Artemis, nor of prophets in general, it’s a mystery why this little girl must be sacrificed.

After the first intermission, Icke’s text sticks closer to Aeschylus, tracing his narrative of Queen Klytemnestra (Anastasia Hille) revenge-murdering Agamemnon and then being revenge-murdered in turn by her son Orestes (Luke Treadaway). But all the foreignness of the original text — all its Greekness — has been carefully sanded away. Athens and Troy have become “the city” and “the other city.” Concepts of honor and glory are overwritten at every turn by those of psychological trauma. Klytemnestra is no longer a power-hungry adulteress but a generic grieving mother. Cassandra (Hara Yannas) is no longer a prophet but a generic prisoner of war. There are no gods, only God. There is no chorus. To my disappointment, there are no Furies to scare anybody.

So why stage the Oresteia at all? What does this ancient Greek tragedy have to say to us if it’s not recognizably ancient or Greek? Ickes is keenly aware of this question. The program notes insist on the play’s essential timelessness and contemporary relevance, featuring not one but two essays by classics scholars invoking Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Brexit, and “the election of President Donald J. Trump.” “Do not sit too comfortably in your seats,” Professor Emily Greenwood admonishes us. “This stunning play is work, work on the house we call democracy.”

I don’t know how much the audience thought about democracy during the performance I attended. I know that they got visibly fidgety over the course of three and a half hours, including two intermissions and one “pause,” and that the lady seated next to me muttered sarcastically about “this joyful play.” If anyone came to the show hoping to learn about ancient Greece, they surely left unsatisfied. At the same time, the reimagining is too generic to have much to say about our current moment. The only politics I thought about were the politics of a British director changing gods to God and presenting it as a human universal.

There was one moment, though, when I was so engrossed I stopped thinking and just reacted. Significantly, it’s one of the few moments that preserves the original text. Agamemnon returns triumphant from the war with a Trojan captive, Cassandra. The other characters try to welcome her to the palace, but Cassandra won’t come inside. She won’t even speak. The characters implore her to communicate, even with just a gesture. Does she not know their language? Is she mute? “She’s like a wild animal,” someone says. Finally, Cassandra opens her mouth and screams. Even on the page, it’s thrilling; onstage, it’s electrifying. It made me wish for more such chances to face my fear of what I don’t understand.

Oresteia is at the Park Avenue Armory through August 13.

At the Armory, an Oresteia That’s Barely Greek