Before the first domino of their tragedies falls, before murder begets murder begets murder, they form an enchanting family: the mother, Klytemnestra, warm and easy with her two little ones huddled around her; the father, Agamemnon, suave in public but cheerful as soon as he walks through the door at the end of the day.
In their comfortable contemporary sanctuary of a home, they seem so absolutely normal. These people love each other. The boy, Orestes, has never been a good sleeper, but when his bad dreams come his parents are there to comfort him. And Iphigenia, her sister, is a sweetheart in a lemon-orange dress. Although she’s young enough to carry her stuffed long-eared bunny around everywhere, she’s old enough and smart enough to already be a moral thinker. When the family has game for dinner, they can’t bear the thought of eating a deer.
“It’s a small corpse,” she said.
Is this the stag whose slaying angered the goddess Artemis so much that she stilled the winds upon which Agamemnon’s warships depend? Tense and captivating “Oresteia” by Robert Icke an emotionally harrowing retelling of Aeschylus’ trilogy at the Park Avenue Armory, doesn’t get bogged down in such background details of ancient mythology.
What matters is the excruciating ransom that Agamemnon, a military commander and great follower of prophecy, thinks he must pay to make the winds blow again so he can be victorious in war. He must murder Iphigenia, his curious, trusting and adored daughter who wants nothing to do with killing deer and has nothing to do with war.
“By his one hand,” reads the prophecy. “The child is the prize. Strong winds.”
His innocent life, irrevocably ended, perhaps in exchange – if his father’s faith in the gods and the advice of serious men is not misplaced – to achieve his political goals. Not, of course, that her mother was consulted about it, let alone Iphigenia herself.
“If she doesn’t feel pain,” says Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, arguing for his niece’s extinction, “and that’s civilized procedure, and that’s the clearest and greatest good , so who are the victims?”
What is the value of a girl’s life? What is the value of his mother’s heartbreak and bottomless rage over the murder of her child? And how, exactly, did Klytemnestra do so badly through the ages for her revenge killing of Agamemnon – like she was singularly wicked and insane when he was just a decent guy in a position tough, who had made the tough call that his own daughter was expendable?
Told in four acts over three and a half hours, this “Oresteia” deals with a grief so deep that it settles in the soul and metastasizes into a need for bloody revenge, the result of which in turn becomes the cause. of new sorrow. If you have wondered what unites “Oresteia” thematically to “Hamlet”, Icke’s other exciting production Running in repertoire at the Armory this summer, there it is – two plays in which murders leave survivors bereft and murderous, and in which one generation of one family suffers the betrayal of another. But while “Hamlet” centers the main character, this refocused “Oresteia” is primarily not about Orestes, the son, but rather Klytemnestra, his haunted mother.
“All of this,” she says to Iphigenia’s ghost as it flies through the house, “all of this is about you.”
When this Armory and the Almeida Theater production was first announced, it was supposed to star Lia Williams as Klytemnestra, reprising the role she had played in London, but an injury cut her short. forced to leave the show before the start of the previews.
Anastasia Hille is the Armory’s Klytemnestra, and she’s gorgeous in an incandescent, utterly likable rendition so engrossing that you’d better spend the entire first intermission watching Klytemnestra simply seated on stage, in a stupor of grief that ages her to the next act. Hille will win many supporters in the Klytemnestra team – although the play also wishes to draw its audience’s attention to the pointless and cyclical horror of murder and revenge, and the self-righteous delusion that only one death of more will even the score for good.
In the terrifying, real-life depiction of a loving marriage being destroyed before our eyes, Hille is matched every inch by Angus Wright as Agamemnon. After Klytemnestra realizes he’s planning to assassinate Iphigenia (beautifully acted during the performance I saw by Alexis Rae Forlenza, one of the two young actors who share the role), the fight they have is so blunt and raw that you may recall its most damaging domestic argument dynamic you’ve ever had.
“It is about a person who comes from us, who would never have lived if we had not loved each other”, says Klytemnestra, pleading the cause of her daughter in the hope that her husband listens to reason. “What you are destroying is us, by doing something that will overwhelm our history, a single action that, if you bring it down on us, will erase all of the history that precedes it.”
At the end of their fight, the current of intimacy that ran between them for years is cut. They are for all intents and purposes exes, effective immediately, with all other emotional access denied. Which, in the bruised and complex psychic honesty of this play, does not mean that love is entirely gone.
Set to a Hildegard Bechtler setting so chic it looks like what you’d get if Norman Foster and Richard Serra modernized an ancient castle, “Oresteia” seeks to engage us in its patterns of needless destruction: every time the lights go out light up on the auditorium, we are reflected in the long glass wall of the set.
The show is peppered with little quirks and perplexities that become clear, for the most part, by the end. Slight spoiler: The reason the adult Orestes (Luke Treadaway) watches much of the action from outside the outskirts of the house is that he’s embroiled in legal proceedings, to determine his guilt in the murder of his mother. His memory is often uncertain. The woman interrogating him (Kirsty Rider) doesn’t really believe his other sister Electra (Tia Bannon), who conspired with him to kill Klytemnestra, even existed. The text suggests that she may not have done so. There is a whiff of mystery in all of this.
But the tragedy is paramount – a tragedy unleashed by superstitious men who believed a little girl’s life didn’t matter and never stopped thinking her mother would strike back.
Through August 13 at Park Avenue Armory, Manhattan; armoryonpark.org. Duration: 3h30.