Friday, April 06, 2007

PLAY: "Orestes 2.0"

There are plenty of fragmented, confusing Greek plays already: so why rethink (and reink) the text of one of the few straightforward ancient dramas? Well, the plain truth is that classicism is often dryly stylized, rich in rhetoric, but dry in depth. Just look at the difference between an old-school version of Orestes, and the rebooted version, Orestes 2.0, currently playing at HERE Arts Center, written by Chuck Mee and directed by Jose Zayas.

Chuck's certainly sexed up the action, and refragmented the text by using an chorus of nurses and mental patients, radio voices and thier irrelevant (but eloquent) flood of private thoughts, but that's it. The disconnect is so high that the merits of the original have been lost in whimsy. Sarah Kane's Phaedra's Love at least recast the heroes and changed the message, all while keeping true to a wild artistic style; this is more like last year's Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart, a modern, hypervisual piece, shaken out of context. You can justify the jarring anachronisms of language because they're aesthetically cool, but you can't place fragments from other plays atop those and expect the whole jumble to still make sense.

Orestes 2.0 overlaps, doubles back, and cuts off so often that if you're unfamiliar with the source material, following the show is near impossible. Barrett Doss, who plays Electra, delivers an explanation of the history at the beginning, but her performance is so forceless that her lines, character's names, and plots are even more confusing than they were before. The show itself seems to be a purposeful exercise in obfuscation: the only character who is clear is Orestes's hip young friend (clad in graphic T, sports jacket, jeans, and designer sunglasses), Pylades. Joseph Carusone makes this role appropriately glib, and his smarmy subtext overcomes the challenging text. Everyone else in the family--Orestes; Orestes's uncle, Menalaus; Orestes's grandfather, Tyndareus; and especially Electra, Orestes's sister--is plagued with a bombastic seriousness that belies the frantic nature of Zayas's staging.

Individually, there are many portions of Orestes 2.0 that work just fine. Charles Mee has a dark and poetic style, Jose Zayas has a deep understanding of classical blocking (which he successfully adapts with a harsher, punkish modern edge), and the hollow, dried-out lighting well-represents a soul-sucking hospital. Together, they're a hodgepodge of cancelling effects: the techno sound design drowns out the epic monologues, the overlapping text makes following any one thread an impossibility, the themes themselves are bleeding watercolors (still making a picture, but messily). When Orestes and Electra are placed on trial for the murder of their mother (who murdered their father, as Greeks do), the play gels: the arguments of the court are pantomimed and silent, and intimate conversations about cock sex float in over microphones like a fine haze, coupled with a violent argument about pubic hair from another corner. Here, the classic is reduced to ridiculousness, here, the past is chided for irrelevance. But is that reason enough to resurrect a play? I think Orestes 2.0 is struggling far too much to be heard: in actuality, like its predecessor, it still has very little to say.

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