Last weekend, the Carleton Players and Semaphore Reparatory Dance Company premiered their rendition of the Greek tragedy “The Oresteia” to a sold-out audience in the new Weitz Center for Creativity Theater. “The Oresteia” – the only surviving Greek trilogy – is a series of tragedies written by Aeschylus about the end of a curse on the House of Atreus. First performed in 458 B.C., it has survived through 2500 years.
The play opens with Agamemnon (Daniel Peck ’13), King of Argos, coming home from the Trojan War. He is received by his wife Clytemnestra (Chelsea Lau ’12), who murders him to avenge the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia and to make her lover Aegisthus (Nikhil Pandey ’15) become king. The rest of the play deals with the aftermath of the murder. “Working on the show was a challenging experience, partly because of the often impersonal, rhetorical nature of many of my speeches,” said Chris Densmore ’13, who plays Apollo. “Portraying a god is no small feat. It was a pleasure, however, working with such a large and comprehensive creative team of directors, technicians, actors and dancers.”
The Weitz Theater was completely transformed for the show. The stage is dominated by a set of enormous and ominous palace doors and is framed by tall balconies, while bits of dirt and rubble are strewn across the stage floor. “This set is one of the most extensive sets I’ve ever worked on, and it gives me a palpable sense of the world of the play,” Densmore said.
While the world of the play exists in millennia past, its themes are still very relevant in today’s world. “The play deals with the aftermath of war, the weight of history on present actions and how we reconcile our intimate private lives with the demands of public life,” said director Ruth Weiner, Class of 1944 professor of theater and liberal arts. “It’s a play about the founding of democracy, about its advantages and its costs. It’s about war and peace, the primacy of the family versus the demands of the state, the power relationships between men and women and old and young. The play feels startlingly modern and yet it is one of the oldest surviving theatrical texts.”
Professor of classical languages Clara Hardy believes it is important for Carleton to perform plays like “The Oresteia” in order to revisit these enduring themes. “I feel there’s a tendency, both in our society at large, but even here at Carleton, to be focused on the present,” Hardy said. “There are so many demands on our attention that it’s easy to forget about the history that brought us here. The more visible we can make that history, the greater depth we can give it, the better.”
The show is a collaboration between the Carleton Players and Semaphore Reparatory Dance Company in conjunction with the course “The Oresteia Project: Visualizing Greek Tragedy,” taught by Weiner and Hardy. All 20 students enrolled in the course were required to participate in the play as actors, assistant directors, dramaturges, projectionists or publicists. “It’s just a wonderful opportunity to link a production to a course,” Hardy said. “The students have had the ability to actually see how things work on the stage in a way that is very unusual … Participating in a full-scale production is just an entirely different experience of the work that is rare and valuable.”
The result of this project is a true multi-media experience, combining acting, dance and film. The Sempahore dancers act as the chorus, and a large screen at the center of the stage projects images throughout the show. “‘The Oresteia’ chorus is divided into speakers and dancers, which makes it very expressive and powerful and offers a terrific opportunity for collaboration,” Weiner said. “We use film of key images from the play, images that carry thematic impact, on the video screens, which give them great focus.” Swathi Varanasi ’14 enjoyed this combination of media. “I really liked the multimedia experience for the most part,” she said. “Clytaemestra’s expression was particularly perfect displayed on the screen.” Varanasi attended the play to see her friend perform and because she had read the play in high school and wanted to see the Players’ interpretation. While she struggled with the misogynist message, she said, “overall, I enjoyed the show. I thought the dancing definitely added a new dimension to the performance.”
“The Oresteia” will be performed again this weekend, at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday.