“Boris Yeltsin,” now showing at the Yale Cabaret in its English-language world premiere, rewrites the story of Orestes. Its playwright, Mickaël de Oliveira, had a vision of the postcolonial generation as well as an extensive obsession with pop culture. The result is this production, a titillating concoction of rampant sex and vibrant discord.
In de Oliveira’s reimagining, the narrative structure of the original Oresteia — the great trilogy by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus — is digested, compacted and distributed in discrete pieces of virulent experience. In other words, de Oliveira splices the original narrative structure into its basic elements, and within the skeleton of the story he embeds a shocking bombardment of postcolonial issues.
I felt a sincere — and profound — sense of confusion as I watched the play, and it persisted after I left the theater. In part V of the performance, the term “confusions and complexes” was written on the wall, and the phrase resonated with how I received this play. I don’t wish, however, to conflate confusion with poor quality. The impact was by no means a trivial or grotesque gimmick; rather, it had presence.
Instead of the original masterpiece from Aeschylus, we received a no-less-powerful barrage of glaring emotional statements about the contemporary postcolonial generation, about the issues that haunt our past. Ahead, I want to describe the moments that most stuck out to me as essential. Ahead are symbols of capitalist oppression, of the fetishization of the exotic and of the rampant sexual offenses around us. Ahead is a man of this generation slaying and abandoning the past and running with the ominous — but illustrious — future. Ahead is a thread of substance that existed as one fiber of many, in the beat of the play.
* * *
It began with us in the heart of the building; it began with darkness and opened to the cue of brass tapping.
“This isn’t about politics,” the man says. “This is about what makes us happy,” the man says.
“Close your fucking eyes,” the man says to an audience member.
A woman appears on the sofa. The man and the woman banter; they’re married; they argue. The man mentions vacation. He begs to peek at her cunt, as he says. They can trade, he says. He continues the sexual onslaught, and she remains resilient, tempered, apathetic. She mentions their son.
She mentions him throughout. She mentions the father’s “shoulds.” You should call him. Failure is mentioned. We failed, he says. We failed, she questions. The man mentions vacation, rocks and water and greenery.
The woman walks over to the edge of the lit stage.
Orestes answers to his two white parents. His manner is effeminate. He dances in his words around his father’s violently abrasive language. His parents inquire as to how he makes money. He went to med school, they mention; they think he prostitutes himself.
“I sell my body,” he admits. “I sell my body.”
In these interactions there are echoes of small chuckles.
Orestes complains that he wishes to never work. “You promised me freedom from the gravity of the world,” he says. He argues with his father. “I’m the creator of utopias,” he shouts on his sofa pedestal. “I’m the creator of utopias.”
“Do you ever listen to your bullshit?” says the father.
“Write that down,” the father says. He shames Orestes. “‘We live in different worlds,’” he mocks. “Write that down too.”
The context fades, but I hear the word “detachment.” They continue to guzzle the vodka, as they have been throughout.
The mother says there is a surprise birthday party for father. She tells him he has to act surprised, but that they both stink. They must take a bath in preparation. The man is in the bath. “We’re dirty; we belong here,” he says.
The trapped woman walks away yet again from the box. She writes on the wall, “Confusions and Complexes.” She returns to the maw of darkness.
* * *
These moments constituted the single beat I heard from the heart of the play — they were what echoed on the steps as I left the theater’s heart of darkness. I imagine that my fellow audience members pouring out of the ventricles beside me came away with very different reflections of their own — we all wondering what hell the ghosts of our pasts impose on our experience.