Our current political climate lends itself to Greek drama. At the start of the war on Iraq, New York theaters held spirited readings of Lysistrata, which seemed to echo the hope that war could be halted by civilian resistance. But as the war dragged on, the national mood seemed to shift from spunky comedy to bloody tragedy. Now, after "Mission Accomplished" and many, many under-reported deaths, we need an Agamemnon.
This fall, the Vortex Theater Company presents a radical re-write of Aeschylus' tragedy that mingles pilfered scenes (one character quotes copiously from Shakespeare, others from Dante, others from autopsy reports) with the original text. The original themes of the play -- order against chaos, justice against revenge -- have been pushed mostly into the background in favor of a drama about the cost of war. This is not Aeschylus' Agamemnon, but a new and worthwhile play that disrupts the familiar text, and our assumptions, in order to bring us closer to the tragedy.
The bones of the plot are in place. Agamemnon, a king, has dragged his country into a long, costly, and bloody war with Troy, for no real reason. He has murdered his daughter, Iphigenia, in order to win the favor of the gods. His queen, Clytemnestra, hasn't been the same since her daughter's death. As the play opens, Agamemnon has declared victory, and he's returning to his wife. But Clytemnestra isn't what she seems, and she's determined to have revenge.
The new material, which spirals in and around the old scenes, is devoted mostly to drawing parallels between the war on Troy and the war on Iraq. It can seem heavy-handed and even misguided, as when a member of the chorus compares Iphigenia to a "suicide bomber." (For the record, when a close family member straps you to an altar and bashes your skull in, this does not count as "suicide.") However, when they're not overstated, the parallels that the play seeks to draw are apt, and in certain moments they lend the play a terrible intensity, most notably in a long scene with a shellshocked veteran.
This production is also notable for the strange, hallucinatory beauty of its staging. It offers some unforgettable images: Elektra as a punk staring vacant-eyed at a dead channel, Cassandra covered in bruises, more dead than alive, and the red carpet that Clytemnestra unfolds from her body, evocative of menstrual blood, the blood of childbirth, and the blood of the dead that carpets battlefields. This production takes big chances. At the start of the play, the audience is kept waiting until the last minute behind a curtain of black plastic garbage bags, while stage hands offer red wine, both of which (garbage bags and wine) will play an important role in the production. Some actors emerge from the audience and gradually become part of the action. The strange twists of the production add to its impact, and bring home its message: as we watch Agamemnon, our lives become ancient tragedy, and ancient tragedy becomes our lives. - Sady O
Agamemnon will be at the St. Veronica's Church (149 Christopher St.) until November 11. For more information, call 212-206-1764
Ms. Sady O. is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic. She also writes the Brain Porn Culture Blog.