Every year, the freshmen in the Yale Dramatic Association put on a spring play, and this year’s offering is Aeschylus’ “The Eumenides.” It is a play about what it means to be guilty, and how to find — or miss — the justice in retribution.
The freshmen give a spirited try, filling the friendly space of Trumbull College’s Nick Chapel with energy. But a sloppy disregard for the technical elements of acting and directing distract from a play that otherwise, in intelligent, broad strokes, explores the limits of one of the great Greek tragedies.
It is unclear, given the enthusiasm of the cast, why they did not select one of the more plot-driven selections of the Orestia. Of the three parts of Aeschylus’ cycle, “The Eumenides” is at once the most cerebral and the most opaque.
You need to know the back-story in order to appreciate the play’s Hamlet-like brooding — and unless you have English 129 under your belt, it’s worth running through.
The old Greek story of the house of Atreus is pretty sordid — Atreus, the old family patriarch, is most famous for inviting his brother over for a nice meaty dinner and, while dessert was being served, saying: “Surprise! Yesterday, I slaughtered and cooked your sons, and you just ate them.” The brother, incensed, curses Atreus’ house. And the latter’s son Agamemnon gets it the worst. He is forced to sacrifice his daughter (Iphigeneia), and when he is off fighting the Trojan War his wife (Clytemnestra) takes a lover — who happens to be the only uneaten nephew of Atreus.
At the start of the Orestia, Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon. Then, on Apollo’s suggestion, Orestes avenges his father’s death by killing his mother. When “The Eumenides” begins, all of this has already come to pass, and we now see Orestes in the temple of Apollo at Delphi. There, the Furies — those terrible, violent forces of nature — lie sleeping around him, hungry for his blood but put to sleep by Orestes’ protector, Apollo.
Orestes is soon taken to the temple of Athena on the Acropolis of Athens, where Athena is to judge him. She convenes a panel of 12 judges, the mythical inspiration for our modern juries, to decide Orestes’ fate.
The producer/directors of the Dramat play have decided to costume the actors in circus clothing and to set the play, evidently, in a circus or carnival. The idea of the trial as a masque is satisfying, and the directors (Greg Edwards ’05 and Justine Isola ’05) deserve credit for a smartly conceived production.
The costuming and set are sumptuous and cleanly executed. Ashley Heeren’s ’05 costuming, in particular, is first-rate and sardonically funny — from Orestes’ greasy tunic to Apollo’s baggy pants. Steve Abramowitz’s ’05 set design is equally excellent. There is a red stripe along the wall and dynamic posters of a bearded woman, a sword-eating man and a fat clown.
But, to the eventual dismay of the audience, there are eight yellow boxes of different sizes on the stage. They at first look pleasant and harmless enough — even rather appropriate for a circus. At different points in the play, though, the boxes are moved around with great fanfare and great, clattering noise — often obscuring a character’s lines and creating visual confusion. Though it may be conceptually justified, it is distracting, bad theater.
Moreover, the directors seem completely unaware of the limitations of Nick Chapel. The space is small and the audiences members are pressed thick against the stage; the space is ideal for hot, unfussy little dramas like Erika MacDonald’s ’02 “The Breaks.” Isola and Edwards’ production is simply too busy. In the middle of character’s monologues, other actors walk into the theater “offstage” when, in fact, no corner of the Nick Chapel is “offstage” — or easy for the audience to ignore.
In one jarring example — and there are many — characters enter the balcony area as part of a flashback-style sequence. But opening and closing the balcony door creates such a racket that we are distracted from one of Orestes’ most important speeches.
This inattention to detail extends to the lighting scheme and acting. Although the play’s expansive interpretation of “The Eumenides” demands a broad acting style, the cast members generally act with just their voices and faces; subtlety in body movement, posture and gesture is nonexistent.
So, too, do the actors fall prey to sing-songy line readings; although, to be fair, their overall effort is hardly discouraging. The cast is rich in talent — particular standouts are a baritone-voiced Orestes, played by Jacob Brogan ’05, and Kara French ’05 as a hardhearted Clytemnestra — and there is no slighting their overall instincts.
Unfortunately the lighting design, dynamic as it is, incoherently ignores the rules of facial illumination. Actors standing on boxes occasionally fall into unfortunate shadows, and the downlighting provides only a half-hearted sense of depth. The Nick Chapel is a difficult space to work with, and the lighting, like other elements of the play, might have benefited from a simpler design.
The freshman production of “The Eumenides” is still intelligent and entertaining; the cast and crew save it with pure enthusiasm.