Cambiare's Orestes is refreshingly fast but, tragically, a bit loose
Reviewed by Avimaan Syam, Fri., Aug. 14, 2009
The Off Center
Through Aug. 15
Running time: 1 hr, 45 min
Deus ex machina. Nowadays we think of it as a tired plot device, used when writers can't figure out a compelling ending. But to the ancient Greeks? They waged war because of the gods; they murdered their beloved; they knew and expected that the gods wrote the rules of their fragile world.
But if they left? If they no longer answered prayers, confirmed suspicions, guided idle hands? Such daunting questions must Orestes answer – having murdered his mother at the god Apollo's behest – when the divinity that guided his actions is replaced with the furies and his vengeful community.
Adapted by director Will Hollis Snider, Cambiare Productions' Orestes begins at its end, with its beleaguered titular character dragging his aunt, Helen of Troy, to Apollo's altar. Orestes is followed by the furies; his sister, Elektra; his uncle, Menelaus; and the fallout of his intended matricide. Particularly in this adaptation, Orestes is a sort of inverted version of Hamlet – he kills the lascivious royal couple that usurped his father's bed and questions his faith and actions afterward. Say what you will about the Great Dane, but at least he was calculating. To be or not to be? Orestes, with his black-and-white view of the world, would've answered quickly.
Cambiare's production is stripped down in many ways. Stripped of characters, like Orestes' accomplice Pylades. Stripped of actors: The furies double as Orestes' family. Stripped of the pageantry that goes with Greek tragedy. The Off Center's traditional aisles of seats are packed into a dark corner. Sand, dust, and an old sleeping bag litter the periphery of the stage. The rafters, wrapped in electrical wires, lay open above, and beyond the limited draping of the back wall stacked chairs can be seen.
Snider's production wants to get at a truth he saw in Orestes, something naked, something alone, something humanly tragic. Comfort and power loom in those fortified by faith, and its removal affects not only Orestes but his whole world. At times, having not read the text for some years, I felt a bit tossed about by Snider's adaptation. The director knew why he was subtly manipulating the narrative, splicing scenes of past and present together, but as an audience member, I felt that the truth of the play was being talked around. This Orestes seemed to concentrate on the moments that precipitated matricide rather than focus on the throughline of plot, which, when combined with some poetic but obtuse scenes, reduces the cohesion of the production.
The play still moves forward with a frantic energy, propelled by Gabriel Luna as Orestes. Luna brings a great deal of energy to his role and, more importantly, makes him a likable and sympathetic character. (In less capable hands, Orestes could have become a whiner.) La Tasha Stephens is notable for her powerful turn as the prosecutor at Orestes' trial.
Cambiare's Orestes rarely lets up on the gas pedal: It's an examination of the way tragedy pushes at our psyche. When the conviction of faith is behind our actions, we as humanity have a stronger, clearer idea of how to lead our lives. When that leaves us, well, the readiness is all.