The Oresteia

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The Oresteia photo
Roy Cox Photography

Editorial Review

Greece Is the Word In This Dizzy Revue

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009

"The Oresteia" involves infidelity, murder and the judgment of the gods: the grand themes of Greek tragedy, in other words. How perfect, then, for a rock-music adaptation, complete with laughs, that incorporates dramatic monologues, dance and knife-throwing.

That's only some of what viewers can expect when Keegan Theatre hosts Dizzy Miss Lizzie's Roadside Revue, whose condensed take on Aeschylus's trilogy opens tonight at the Church Street Theater.

What, exactly, is Dizzy Miss Lizzie's Roadside Revue? It's hard to explain. Not for me; for them.

We called Steve McWilliams and Debra Buonaccorsi, founders of the D.C.-based Dizzy, and asked: Are you a theater company? Musical act? Some unholy hybrid of the two?

"Yes, yes and yes," says Buonaccorsi, 33, who directed and co-wrote "Oresteia." She also plays Iphegenia (along with the accordion) in the show-within-a-show, which is presented as if by a roving troupe of 1930s carnies/musicians, pulling their props out of a large trunk. "We definitely function as a rock band and a theater company." There are also, she adds, elements of burlesque and vaudeville.

Her partner puts it this way: "I remember we were saying that Woody Guthrie met Led Zeppelin in the Dust Bowl of 1930, and they all joined a carnival," says McWilliams, 44, the show's musical director, co-writer, Agamemnon and guitar/mandolin player. "That's kind of the feel. You walk in, and there's people in the audience, and they're talking to you, and they're doing juggling, and they're doing all sorts of things, and then the show starts and it all warps into the story of 'The Oresteia.' "

The music is equally all over the map, according to McWilliams, an actor and musician with deep roots in the local band scene. In addition to the " '60s-based bombast," the influences include blues and bluegrass, ZZ Top and such rock operas as the Who's "Tommy." There's also punk in the "Furies" section, adds Buonaccorsi, when Orestes, who has killed his mother, is tormented by S&M-style spirits.

The material may be heavy, Buonaccorsi says, but it's handled with a light touch. "You'll laugh a lot," McWilliams promises.

The pair, who met while performing in a local production of "Evita," say they've always been attracted to over-the-top stories and characters who make what Buonaccorsi calls "strong choices." "The Oresteia" premiered last summer at the Capital Fringe Festival, where representatives of Keegan Theatre saw it and, according to McWilliams, loved its craziness. (Several performances of "Oresteia" are also being promoted as part of this year's Fringe, with discounted tickets available if purchased through the Fringe box office. Also at the Fringe is the debut of Dizzy's "The Saints," a musical adaptation based on the lives of such Catholic saints as Augustine, Francis and Therese of Lisieux. See schedule on Page 20.)

What started out as a bit of a goof between musical-theater geeks has turned into a tale for our times, McWilliams says. "Once we started adapting it and writing the songs for it and everything, it just kind of fell together. We were just, like, 'Wow, this is a really great story.' " His partner agrees, citing the timeliness of the themes about the clash between right and wrong, the endless cycle of vengeance and unjust war. (As Aeschylus's story opens, Agamemnon is returning from the Trojan War.)

The show, for some, has unexpected resonance. "Someone said, 'You should do this show in Israel,' " Buonaccorsi says. Although neither will say what's coming next from the troupe, McWilliams predicts that it won't take the easy path, or a predictable one.

"Let's just say it will be exciting, and no one's ever done it before."