This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
In our era of movie sequels and multi-season story lines on television, the notion of spending a long time with one set of characters and their drawn out dilemmas is not foreign to contemporary American audiences. But there is a difference between something that is serialized (sit-coms, daytime dramas, Friday the 13th movies) and epic works that require a large canvas.
It might be hard for Angelenos to put down the Harry Potter heptology or turn off the latest in the Halo Trilogy, but if they could, they'd see that this month, the two most famous multi-part dramas in Western Civilization are playing in strange new versions that originated here in Los Angeles.
The first is the oldest tetrology in literature, The Oresteia, by Aeschylus. Conceived as a cycle of four plays, only the first three remain: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. This surviving trilogy of dramas tells the story of the House of Atreus and the curse that Agamemnon, The King of Argos, brings upon his family when he goes to war.
The characters who inhabit The Oresteia are household names (Clytemnestra, Elektra, Cassandra) and their troubles are equally familiar: husband betrays wife, daughter feels oppressed by mother, son picks up the pieces of a mess father made. This is no doubt part of what attracted LA's Ghost Road Theatre Company to adapt The Oresteia into a vaguely contemporary look at American domestic life. Directed by Katharine Noon, their trilogy is called Home Siege Home.
Noon's visual style, 1950's suburban chic, is interesting (as are Maureen Weiss' prefab, suitcase sets) and its clear Noon's vision of 20th Century America as the House of Atreus is well thought out (it's been developed and staged in parts going back over 10 years).
The formal recitation of Greek tragedy has been replaced by a somewhat stilted mix of soliloquy and American vernacular — at one point Orestes tells Elektra, "You're so not normal." He's right, though this charge could be leveled at all the characters in Noon's adaptation. Sadly, this lack of normality has less to do with their quirky idiosyncrasies and more with the awkward way in which the characters communicate.
Home Siege Home is being staged at [Inside] the Ford, the same theater that saw the LA premiere of Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice a few seasons past. In that adaptation of Greek myth, Ruhl blended modern language with old-fashioned structure in a seamless way, the allusions to the past were clear and the interactions fresh. Noon and the Ghost Road manage this only with the character of Hermione. For no given reason, she's played here by a man (Brian Weir) and throughout most of the plays she speaks only in random asides and observations. This whimsy works as counterpoint to the familiar drama on stage and draws us in. Unfortunately, the rest of Home Siege Home consists of more conventional chatter, which somehow turns Aeschylus' work into an intelligently curated, but ultimately flat soap opera.
Equally audacious in its reinterpretation, and more successful in its execution, is Achim Freyer's staging of Western Civilizations second most famous tetrology: Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungen. This month saw the premiere of the second opera in this cycle: The Valkyrie. Like The Rheingold, which bowed earlier this year, Freyer's Valkrie is dark, playful, filled with goofy puppetry and lots of doppelgangers. Luckily, the production is also filled with first-rate performers. Freyer's vision is coming more into focus and yet it's still retaining its ability to dazzle, even as its wild imagery becomes clear. Halfway through this Ring cycle, I'm like those addicted Harry Potter readers and Halo players: I literally can't wait for the next installment.
The final performance of The Valkyrie is this Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Ring continues with Siegfried in September; Ghost Road's Home Siege Home continues at [Inside] the Ford Amphitheater through May 3.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Banner image: Madelynn Fattibene, JoAnna Senatore, Ronnie Clark and Sarah Broyles in Home Siege Home. Photo: Mark Seldis. Valkyrie image by Monika Rittershaus