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Saved by the Chorus: The Oresteia at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

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Murder and retaliation come vividly alive in The Oresteia at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company through March 10. CSC’s current production, an adaption of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy by Ellen McLaughlin, is brilliantly directed by Lise Bruneau and features outstanding performances by Isabelle Anderson as Clytemnestra and Lizzi Albert as Electra.

The three plays of Aeschylus’ Oresteia present a series of retaliatory killings among the ruling family of Argos. King Agamemnon personally sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia so that his fleet can sail for Troy. Wearily returning after sacking Troy, he is murdered by his understandably resentful wife, Clytemnestra. Ten years later, their son, Orestes, returns from exile, reconnects with his embittered sister Electra, and kills Clytemnestra. For that deed, Orestes is driven out of Argos and hounded across Greece by a squad of Furies. Orestes eventually makes his way to Athens, where he appeals to Athena for relief. 

McLaughlin’s version compresses Aeschylus’ three plays into one. She cut four characters, much dialogue, and all of the choral songs that the Greek audiences loved. McLaughlin’s main structural revision was to combine all three of Aeschylus’ choruses—each play had its own—into a single group, the servants in the royal palace.

Using a single chorus allows McLaughlin to end the separation of the chorus and the leads which was so important to the Greeks. In her version, the main characters move among and speak to the chorus members as individuals and they reply in kind. The result is that the chorus become members of the cast. They give the audience the backstory; they also grouse and bicker and undercut the lofty speeches of the leads. After Clytemnestra recounts a dream that fills her with foreboding,  one of the maids (Hana Clarice) grumbles, “Why do I have to listen to everyone’s nightmares?”   

The cast of Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's The Oresteia. Photo by Kiirstn Pagan Photography.
Isabelle Anderson in CSC's The Oresteia. Photo by Kiirstn Pagan Photography.
Isaiah Mason Harvey and Lizzi Albert in CSC's The Oresteia. Photo by Kiirstn Pagan Photography.

McLaughlin’s adaptation challenges the leads to come across as ordinary people while maintaining their lofty stature. As Clytemnestra, Isabelle Anderson begins by talking to the household staff, like a suburban matron, about house cleaning. After killing Agamemnon, she will emerge from the palace, covered with blood, and announce, chillingly, “The House is cleansed.”

Stephen Patrick Lawrence, as Agamemnon, shows the king overcoming his natural feelings as he publicly cuts his daughter’s throat. Later he returns from Troy a tired, dusty soldier, embarrassed to walk on the red carpet Clytemnestra has rolled out for him. Lizzi Albert portrays Electra as a bratty teenager—until she witnesses Orestes’ revenge. Isaiah Mason Harvey as Orestes, believing that he has Apollo’s authority, summons all his strength to kill Clytemnestra. He is immediately reduced to terror when he has a vision of the Furies, played by the chorus standing over him with knives.

McLaughlin’s most radical departure from Aeschylus’ text occurs at the end of the play. In the original, Orestes makes his way to Athens to appeal to Athena to dismiss them. The goddess hears testimony from both parties and frees Orestes from the Furies and the Furies from their role as agents of vengeance. Henceforth, justice will be determined by the rule of law.

In a video interview last year, McLaughlin recalls that Aeschylus’ ending gave her a lot of trouble as she prepared her adaptation soon after the 2016 elections. “In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election I couldn’t share Aeschylus’ confidence that civilization will be established, the rule of law will be established. I had seen enough of the subjection of women to believe that the Furies, the atavistic and dark powers, will be contained and controlled.” Her solution is to leave out the gods. Apollo and Athena do not appear. Instead, the ghost of Clytemnestra tells Orestes that the chorus will judge him.

The chorus members are dumbfounded by this responsibility; they shuffle around the stage, debating among themselves. Finally, through what the author calls an “act of grace,” they settle on a general forgiveness and wash Clytemnestra’s blood from the floor and from Orestes’ hands.

The scene is deeply moving. The people are no longer subject to the gods and their laws of retribution; they are free to judge for themselves. Tragic drama emerged in Athens at the same time that the people of Athens threw off their kings and established democracy. The two developments are connected. Greek drama is about human agency, unlike Greek myth. This is a timely message for a city in which injury and retaliation go on almost daily. We will never be free until we break that cycle. 

The Oresteia runs Thursdays through Sundays at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore. Tickets are available at 410.244.8570 or ChesapeakeShakespeare.com.

Isabelle Anderson and the cast of CSC's The Oresteia. Photo by Kiirstn Pagan Photography.

Images courtesy of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

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