The fall of the House of Atreus
In SENGA’s latest production, violence topples a noble family
By Jenny Lower 04/11/2013
SENGA Classic Stage Company’s Curse of the House of Atreus: The Agamemnon picks up where last year’s Women of Troy left off. If you thought the Greeks came off as unsympathetic then (all that raping and pillaging), you’re still right — this time, events unfold through Greek eyes, but this bloodthirsty lot has to work hard to stir our sympathies.
At curtain rise, the Greek king Agamemnon (Ronald Rezac) is making his way home to wife Clytemnestra (Natasha Zavala) after crushing the Trojans, his booty Cassandra (Emily Heffner) (prophetess daughter to the conquered King Priam) in tow. A generation back, Agamemnon’s father Atreus and uncle Thyestes got into a fraternal dispute that culminated in Atreus sauteeing his brother’s children into a stew, served up steaming hot to Thyestes. At the outset of war, Agamemnon himself slaughtered his virgin daughter Iphigenia (Callie Stephens) to the gods to barter a fair wind to Troy.
These are the kind of people we’re dealing with.
The Agamemnon is less successful than Women of Troy, partly because the smaller cast of characters is so much harder to like. The production suffers from some rough transitions — electric passages, like Agamemnon’s seduction by his seething wife, alternate with flashbacks and slower portions that can sap the show’s momentum or cause momentary confusion.
Deliberate anachronisms work to mixed effect. Modern military fatigues and a gold collar mark Agamemnon as a soldier and king, but some choices, like a returning veteran’s Scottish highlander persona, appear more inscrutable. Heffner’s turn as the mad sibyl would have been more effective played several decibels lower. And director Francisca Beach has to contend with the general public’s (and this reviewer’s) limited knowledge of high Greek tragedy, which can make the exegesis of long monologues challenging.
But despite missteps, the intrepid, attentive theatergoer will find much to satisfy among the play’s themes regarding justice and warfare, making the production an intriguing lens for evaluating the last 10 years of American foreign policy.
Beach has a gift for creating arresting images that incarnate the brutality directed at women’s bodies in war. In Women of Troy, Helen was wheeled onstage in a cage; in The Agamemnon, Iphigenia is strung up like a hock of ham (on a contraption, somewhat distressingly, crafted by the actress’ father some years back to store horse equipment).
Beyond these clearly relevant depictions of women’s victimization, there are inescapable echoes of recent wars. When the Chorus informs Agamemnon that they disapproved of his premise for waging battle 10 years ago, it’s impossible not to think of the Iraq invasion; when Clytemnestra, drenched in her husband’s blood, asks where she could have obtained a fair trial to prosecute her husband’s filicide, she recalls both the international cries to prosecute George W. Bush and the covert killing of Osama Bin Laden.
The crux of the play rests in the capable hands of Ron Rezac and Natasha Zavala, whose war-weary Agamemnon and fierce Clytemnestra capture in miniature the challenge facing plenty of returning veterans’ families only too eager to leave the battlefield behind them. Few veterans find themselves guilty of Agamemnon’s barbarism, but Curse of the House of Atreus counsels a useful lesson for any civil society: violence only begets more blood.
Curse of the House of Atreus: The Agamemnon, through April 28, SENGA Classic Stage Company, Ojai Valley Grange, 381 Cruzero St. 646-4885 or sengaclassicstage company.com.