Orestes 3.0: Inferno: Theater Review

Bold and vigorous reimagining of Euripides tragedy made trenchantly relevant to contemporary moral issues, enhanced by a striking, stylish and focused production. 

Playwright Charles M. Lee takes on Euripides in this production by avant-garde company City Garage.

Times are bad, life is tough, and things have gone horribly wrong. Who do we blame: the gods, someone (anyone) else — me? Do we share culpability? Does it matter? How do we respond to the dreadful actions of others, or of ourselves? How do we distinguish justice from self-justification, in others or in ourselves? What is to be done?

Such questions of undeniable pertinence to contemporary life and politics can trace their origins to the classical Greeks. Playwright Charles L. Mee (bobrauschenbergamerica, Big Love, The Berlin Circle) has previously wrought impressive adaptations from the Athenian theater (Agamemnon, Orestes 2.0) but he has surpassed himself in this world premiere created especially for Santa Monica’s premier avant-garde company, the City Garage, inaugurating their new and highly felicitous space at the Bergamont Art Complex.

Mee stays true to the original myth though he freely spins the narrative through a most contemporary sensibility. Agamemnon has returned from Troy to be murdered by his wife Clytemnestra for having sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to appease the gods of war. In turn, her children, Orestes (Johanny Paulino) and Electra (Megan Kim), have revenged their father by killing their mother and her lover. The city has turned upon them, and where Orestes would have been king, the only issue before the tribunal is whether they should be stoned, or their throats cut.

The action opens after the murders, the proceedings emceed by a most Dionysian Apollo (Erol Dolen, inspired and original in his creepiness), a feral satyr who takes great joy in toying with bloody human folly: after all, the gods may order the mortals to commit atrocities, but why need they obey? The playwright Sophocles is recruited for meditations on human responsibility. Menelaus (Daryl Keith Roach), King of Sparta and uncle to the accused, feels motivated by the kinship of blood to help, yet military weakness forces him to be pragmatic. Their grandfather, Tyndareus (Bo Roberts), sets aside familial bonds to be rigorously vindictive for the murder of his daughter. Orestes, remorseful but unrepentant, is goaded by his pal Pylades (Justin Davanzo) into terrorist hostage-taking as his only hope for salvation.

Everyone makes an articulate advocate for a different viewpoint, and Mee simultaneously makes each case and reveals its flaws, scrupulously avoiding judgment. The common thread is that we make principles out of our perceptions of self-interest, and above all, we preserve the capacity for denial that ensures we never recognize our own responsibility.

The most original of all the creations is Mee’s Helen (Katrina Nelson), modeled on familiar stereotypes of the Westside trophy wife yet executed with such perfect pitch she becomes unerringly fresh. Appalling, obtuse, self-absorbed yet oddly frank, even honest, Nelson’s brilliant turn conveys both acute irony and deep embodiment of character. She’s not merely a cliché, nor a pop culture reference. She’s a vivid axiom who cannot (and will not) be dismissed, enabled by breathtakingly witty couture.

All of Mee’s intellectually stimulating myriad of arguments could not take life without the animation of Frédérique Michel’s continuously inventive direction. The corps is superbly drilled, and the pace furiously drives us from one lucid speech to another. Anachronisms and modern references may abound, yet they never seem to be forced signifiers, always enlightening the point. For once the Furies in a modern realization genuinely integrate into the narrative.

Mee never lapses into the glib, even as his speakers may. His vision of human subterfuge is comprehensive in its many variations. He calls for us to examine our lives in productive ways. It is a forthright and courageous challenge, and while there is no way to gauge if this play has a life in the future, it indubitably speaks with force and cogency to the way we live now in this very moment. This has to be one of the highest callings for the theater.

Venue: City Garage, Santa Monica (through Nov. 25)

Cast: Johanny Paulino, Megan Kim, Nathan Dana Aldrich, Daryl Keith Roach, Katrina Nelson, Justin Davanzo, Bo Roberts, Erol Dolen, Mariko Oka, Leah Harf, Megan Penn, Mitchell Colley, Samantha Geraci-Yee, Justin Bardales

Director-choreographer: Frédérique Michel

Playwright: Charles L. Mee

Producer, Production & Lighting Designer: Charles A. Duncombe

Costume Designer: Josephine Poinsot

Sound Designer: Paul Rubenstein