An Oresteia: Classical Roller Coaster Plunges Into Modernity

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Photos, from a rehearsal of the play, by Jiuxing June Xie.

An Oresteia begins with a clattering rush of noise and a burst of live music. As the players file onstage to the wistful strains of “Surfer Girl,” it soon becomes apparent that this Oresteia is unlike any other Oresteia. In the grand, hallucinatory tradition of David Lynch, the Honors Directing Thesis of Louis Jargow ’10 injects a jolt of pop modernity into a heterogeneous retelling of an ancient Greek tragedy.

The play concerns Electra and Orestes, the rebellious siblings who take revenge on their mother, Clytemnestra, for murdering their father, Agamemnon. Jargow uses Anne Carson’s An Oresteia as the backbone for a production that also intersperses Charles Mee’s Orestes 2.0, Louise Glück’s Averno, and Slavoj Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes with original text created in rehearsal. Jargow conceived and developed this concept in collaboration with guest dramaturg Rebecca Wright; An Oresteia represents the culmination of more than ten months of work.

Jargow selected the tale of Electra and Orestes for its enduring relevance and prescience. He believes the Orestes saga is “apt for a re-examination because of its high political stakes.” His production has many signifiers of an austere, alternate-universe Los Angeles, and Jargow says he placed An Oresteia in a contemporary setting to evoke “a world we can readily understand because it is dominated by communication, language, and media.” The relentless barrage of news, music, and advertisement reinforces the characters’ struggle to communicate over the gathering entropy of a world accelerating out of control.

Wright describes the production’s aesthetic as a “tripped-out pop mash-up,” and the show is a ravishing spectacle of sight of sound. A triumph of technical wizardry, it draws upon mixed media to present the audience with a sensational experience as well as a dramatic narrative. In addition to live music, An Oresteia also features recorded music, televisions, silhouettes, and projections. Jessie Cannizzaro ’12, who plays Clytemnestra, said that “the convergence of all the elements – set, sound, lighting, and music – made the piece cohesive and thrilling.”

A strong ensemble cast rises to the challenges of reconciling classical drama with postmodern pop-rock. The performers skillfully navigate between traditional declamation and contemporary dialogue, and they embrace the histrionic dimensions of the text. The collaborative nature of the production is apparent in the cast’s unerring commitment to their characters – a dedication that prevails even when unexpected bloody noses are incurred in the line of performance.

Wright said An Oresteia “highlights ancient power dynamics that are still relevant to our world — perhaps illustrating the need for radicalism that shakes up an oppressive power structure.” The production emphasizes gender disparities and the entrapment of women in a patriarchal order as the female characters fight against a fraternal cult dominated by the god Apollo. Reflecting on her role as Electra, Suzanne Winter ’10 adds that An Oresteia explores “the dichotomy between men’s and women’s powers. Women lose power when they do ‘unnatural’ things.”

At times arresting in its intensity, An Oresteia speaks directly to the audience. “I want this to be a public play,” Jargow says. “The play is for the audience — to challenge and embrace and engage them.” The creative team acknowledges the disquieting nature of the piece and its lack of resolution. Jargow hopes the play will leave audiences still contemplating its questions. Winter agreed: “I want the show to harness a visceral sinking sensation, like when you’ve reached the top of a roller coaster and are about to plunge down.” Jargow’s innovative production demonstrates that the ancient Greeks still have the power to shock and astound, and An Oresteia revitalizes classical tragedy in a singular theatrical event.

Presented by the Swarthmore College Department of Theater, An Oresteia plays in the Lang Performing Arts Center’s Frear Ensemble Theater Friday February 26 – Saturday February 27 at 8 p.m. and Sunday February 28 at 3 p.m. The design team includes Tara Nova Web ’95 (Set), Jessie Bear ’09 (Lighting), Claire Sumaydeng-Bryan ’10 (Costumes), Daniel Perelstein ’09 (Sound), and Logan Tiberi-Warner ’11 (Hair and Makeup). The cast features Eva Amesse ’11, Ben Camp ’05, Jessie Cannizzaro ’12, Selmaan Chettih ’10, Michael Edmiston ’12, Sol Hilfinger-Pardo ’12, Eric Holzhauer ’10, Amelia Kidd ’11, Chris Klaniecki ’10, Isa St. Clair ’11, and Suzanne Winter ’10.

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