- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 22, 2001

Ancient Greece ran amok with young and old women who were fierce with power, proudly feminine and not afraid to use their force or their sexuality when the need arose, in the vision of Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith.
Although Kenneth Cavander's madly paced, entertaining adaptation of six Greek tragedies, "Agamemnon and His Daughters," contains many compelling male roles, it is definitely fueled by girl power. The three-hour production at Arena Stage packs in plays by Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus, including "Agamemnon," "Iphigeneia at Aulis," "Iphigeneia in Tauris" and the individual stories of Klytaimestra, Elektra and Orestes, all of whom were from the same family, the cursed house of Atreus.
Mr. Cavander employs straightforward, elegantly cropped language to tell the story of this family without any of the artifice or formality we might associate with Greek tragedy.
It is no accident that the entire production is imbued with the spirit of Artemis (or Diana, to the Romans), the virgin goddess of the hunt and animals, of maidens and of childbirth and "womanly" will.
Artemis is Apollo's twin sister, and like her brother, Artemis is a ferocious protector of those who seek her favor. When men mess with her maidens, she turns them into trees, deer or dogs. When women are unfaithful to her brother, she shoots them down with her bow and arrow. Ancient cults are associated with Artemis, and these cults, distinguished by their frenzied singing and dancing, are usually female centered and female powered.
As devotees of Artemis, many of the female characters act with equal swiftness and resolve. Regal Klytaimestra (Gail Grate), noble Iphigeneia (Marta Ann Lastufka), disturbing Kassandra (Rebecca Rice), the wretched Elektra (Natascia Diaz) are terrible, strange and towering and eschew the constraints and customs of mere mortals in favor of obeying divine law.
The Chorus (Colleen Delany, Maia DeSanti, Saskia De Vries, Miss Diaz, Naomi Jacobson, Greta Pemberton, Rosemary Knower and Miss Rice) makes you believe it is participating in an Artemis cult, especially when members sing in chantlike cadences that are incantatory and perform Eastern-tinged dances with pagan grace (the dances are deftly choreographed by Karma Camp, while Fabian Obispo provides the delicate, shivery music). At other times, Chorus members are less formal and more earthy, as they gossip, grouse, sass back and make begrudging remarks at the horrors and injustice they witness.
In fact, much of the energy in Miss Smith's production is earthbound, from the rhythmic pounding of the Chorus, to the movement of the main characters, who swirl about like low-lying wind. Everyone spends a lot of time looking up at the heavens and praying to the gods, but their actions are firmly anchored in the soil, in the Greece they often love above humanity. Even when Artemis (Miss Jacobson) appears in the fantastical epilogue, she strolls out from the wings rather than alighting from above.
Before the deus ex machina, however, those troublemaking mortals provide plenty of action, which begins when Agamemnon (Jack Willis) agrees to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigeneia, to Artemis in order for the winds to kick up so the Greeks can sail off to the Trojan War.
"Be yourself. Be selfish," his brother Menelaos (Kurt Rhoads) advises. After a bit of teeth-gnashing, Agamemnon agrees and lures Iphigeneia to her death by promising her in marriage to the warrior Achilles (Ezra Knight). Iphigeneia is your typical girlish teen-ager. She wails, "It's not fair" until a terrible calm steals over her and she becomes brave and feisty and sings "Darkness take me in your arms" as the Chorus drapes her with flowers.
Klytaimestra is suitably appalled, not only at the murder but at Agamemnon's ruse. As she stalks off, the fabric wrinkling the stage billows to life and the winds boil around her. In the second scene, Miss Grate hits her greatest point as Klytaimestra gets her revenge. She greets Agamemnon after the war with a lavish homecoming in which her arms are open and her voice drips with sweet sarcasm. The howdy-do quickly turns into a bloodbath, with Klytaimestra wielding a bloody ax. In keeping with Greek tradition, the murders take place offstage.
Things flirt with camp after this, as Klytaimestra plants a juicy smooch on her lover, Aigisthos (Andrew Long), a fey and chicken-hearted royal who behaves like someone late to the drag show. Mr. Long adds a crazy bit of lowbrow humor to the proceedings, which is welcome after too much suffering.
More vows of revenge and killings occur, as the children of Agamemnon Elektra and Orestes (Paolo Andino) decide to dismember mama and her whiny lover. Murder turns out not to be the answer, as Elektra is as bitter and inconsolable as she was before, and Orestes is pursued by Furies for his unnatural crime.
As the play descends into pure weirdness, we learn that Iphigeneia is alive and not so well, rescued by Artemis at the last minute and plunked down in the Godforsaken land of Tauris, where she is a priestess who performs human sacrifices. Decked out in a white fur robe that looks vaguely like Eskimo garb, Iphigeneia has much power, but she is homesick and longs to go back to Greece.
We don't think of Greek tragedies having happy endings, but this one does, not only with a reunion between sister and brother but with Artemis bringing the whole gang back for a group grace note.
"Agamemnon and His Daughters" is fast, furious and sometimes funny, even in its bleakest moments. If you are trying to keep track of the characters and look for Aristotelean logic, you could get confounded very easily. Better to go with the loopy flow of Miss Smith's production, which is "girly" in the best sense of the word.

* * * 1/2
WHAT: "Agamemnon and His Daughters"
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 7
$32 to $49

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