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Depending on where you were when the first flakes began to fall you may find the timing of Folger Theatre’s newest production, playwright Anne Washburn’s gorgeously modern version of Orestes, oddly timely. Not so much the bit where one member of a family decides to murder another member of the family with the assistance of his sister and best friend. It’s one thing to say, ”If I don’t get out of this house I’m going to kill somebody…” and an entirely other thing to actually do so.
(Though this feeling is understandable, particularly if your living situation is that great urban animal known as the ”group house.” Amazing how much more dramatic and entertaining group houses are when the house in question is shot full of hidden cameras and choreographed by a team of ratings-minded television producers.)
Orestes: A Tragic Romp is also about being trapped, about being unable to escape one’s fate and circumstances, about making the decision to stand and fight, or simply curl up and wait for others to decide what will happen next.
In other words, you can pick up a shovel and get to work, or you can sit and hope for an early spring.
Though for Orestes (Jay Sullivan), as is the case for many of us, even when you pick up that shovel you may soon learn that complete control is entirely out of your control.
(Again, the snow-induced homicidal impulse is understandable when a snow-shoveling neighbor, who would do well to study his Greek tragedies, fills in the parking spot you have spent several hours cleaning out.)
Urged on by the god Apollo, Orestes has avenged the murder of his father by killing his own mother. Perhaps unsurprisingly, matricide is not something that goes over well with the citizens of Argos, and general public opinion is that Orestes and his sister Electra (Holly Twyford) should be put to death immediately.
And if the possibility of a public stoning wasn’t enough to keep the young Orestes occupied, he’s also dealing with a flock of Furies, an uncle whose greatest concern is shoring up his damaged political popularity — Menelaus (Chris Genebach) and his wife Helen of Troy have caused something of a stir and, like matricide, setting off a blood-soaked war seems to tick people off — and some anger management issues when it comes to a certain God of the Sun.
Sullivan is outstanding, sliding seamlessly between madness and ruthless sanity. His Orestes is a fascinating teeter, a careful balance that is never overplayed or upset. It is Twyford’s Electra who greets the audience, trying desperately to maintain some semblance of composure as the entire world falls down around her. She is round-eyed and desperate, Twyford projecting an almost physical desperation. We sense her fear and are drawn into the drama of this ”tragic romp” in a jarring instant.
So, why a tragic romp?
Because there is more humor at work here than the play’s storyline would suggest. There are subtle asides and full-throated gaffs, nods to the audience and genuine knees-slappers.
Enjoying much of that laughter is Genebach who morphs in and out of a host of characters including Orestes’s best friend Pylades, a Trojan slave, Menelaus and the great beauty Helen of Troy. While the joke is sometimes strained a bit (his Trojan slave plays a bit too much like shtick compared to the production’s overall polish), it’s a great series of performances. Genebach’s Helen, with her broad-brimmed garden hat and beekeeper veil, is a picture not soon forgotten.
Visually, Sullivan and Twyford look as though they have stumbled away from a three-day bender at a grunge rock festival. Costume designer Jessica Ford has wrought beautiful havoc on the entire cast, creating wardrobe elements that patchwork everything from Blanche’s Streetcar to Seattle circa 1985 to, well, Saturday morning cartoons. It’s a smart, well-realized design scheme that perfectly fits the tone director Aaron Posner has established.
Much of that tone, the brilliant underpinning of Washburn’s adaptation of the Euripides play, comes from the pulsating and utterly arresting Greek chorus. The ensemble – comprised of Lauren Culpepper, Rebecca Hart, Marissa Molnar, Margo Seibert, and Rachel Zampelli – haunts the theater with an intricate, a capella braid of chant, hand beat rhythms, and raw lyricism.
James Sugg, who not only composed the music for Orestes but also served as its sound designer, has crafted a lovely, dark swirl that envelops the audience and gathers us in.
Washburn has given new life and spirit to a play some 2,400 years old. Under the watchful eyes of Helen Hayes award-winning director Posner this world premiere is now flourishing in D.C.’s Folger Theatre, a house you’ll be very happy to spend your time in.
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