"Orestes, A Tragic Romp," bounds onto Folger's stage

By Celia Wren
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; C01

Mention the name of the ancient Greek tragedian Euripides, and most people will not think "Thelma & Louise." But acclaimed director Aaron Posner and cutting-edge playwright Anne Washburn reference just that film when discussing "Orestes," Euripides' 5th century B.C. drama about murder, desperation and revenge.

"Orestes," like the 1991 movie, "turns into an adventure story" with reckless characters and a jaw-dropper of an ending, the trimly bearded Posner noted the other day, as he and Washburn chatted with a reporter in a Folger Shakespeare Library meeting room. "It uses up a lot of psychic real estate," he said. "It really bounces things together in a shocking way."

"It becomes a gripping melodrama, almost, but it still has that very tragic core," said the soft-spoken, bespectacled Washburn, adding that "Orestes" also includes sequences of sheer "goofball-ism."

The duo's enthusiasm for this stylistic potpourri is currently on view in "Orestes, A Tragic Romp," Washburn's translation-with-liberties of the Euripides original. Posner stages this Folger Theatre world premiere, co-produced by New Jersey's Two River Theater Company, where he is artistic director. Jay Sullivan and Holly Twyford star as Orestes and Electra, siblings caught up in a cycle of guilt and violence in the Trojan War's aftermath.

The production represents a departure for Posner, who has racked up a Doric column's worth of theater credits (including a couple of Helen Hayes awards) in his 45 years. Among other gigs around the country, he has staged nine works for the Folger, including a puppet-infused "Measure for Measure" and a "Macbeth" jointly supervised by the magician Teller. His adaptations of two Chaim Potok novels have found berths across the United States; in March, "My Name Is Asher Lev" will land at Round House Theatre, which debuted "A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage: A Mark Twain Musical Melodrama," with book and lyrics by Posner, in 2006.

But he has never, until now, tackled one of the Greek classics. "Because I don't like them," he explains, acknowledging a moment later that his real beef has been with "overblown" productions and translations he found "impenetrable and stiff."

But one day, while browsing the Web site of New Dramatists, a New York nonprofit, Posner noticed that affiliated writer Washburn, of whom he'd heard good things, had adapted a Euripides play. He procured a script. "I was literally four lines in, and I said, 'Wait a second! That's funny, and smart, and ironic and accessible!' " he says.

Washburn had encountered the play as an undergraduate at Reed College. "The brain behind it seemed so modern to me," the New York-based 41-year-old says. In particular, the play's fluctuating tone fascinated her. "You'll have these moments that are very grim; you have these moments that are goofy; then grim, then goofy," she says. As an example, she cites the way laments by Electra (facing a death sentence, with Orestes, for the killing of their mother) segue into an almost cartoonish routine -- Washburn calls it the Tiptoe Dance -- in which whispering chorus women try to be super-super-quiet while Orestes sleeps.

The play stayed on her mind while her career burgeoned. A member of the hyper-hip theater companies 13P and the Civilians, she has penned edgy works like "The Communist Dracula Pageant," a satire about the 1989 Romanian revolution; "The Ladies," a riff about Elena Ceausescu, Imelda Marcos, Eva Perón and Madame Mao; and "The Internationalist," a dark comedy that's partly written in a foreign language Washburn invented. (Studio Theatre produced "The Internationalist" in 2008.)

Over the years Washburn read several "Orestes" translations, and none -- including the one she'd read in college -- seemed to her very actor-friendly. Nor did she happen upon the ideal production. Although in antiquity "Orestes" was among Euripides' most celebrated dramas, it fell out of fashion beginning in the 19th century, says David Kovacs, a professor of classics at the University of Virginia and editor of six Euripides volumes for the Loeb Classical Library. "To many, it has felt, with all its excitement, a bit more like melodrama than tragedy," he notes. And he points out that the play's fusion of upbeat and solemn material may seem a "weird combination" to modern eyes.

In 2004, Washburn set out to render that weirdness into flavorful English. Not reading ancient Greek, she worked from literal translations, tweaking the text sometimes to, say, make allusions clearer for contemporary audiences. Now and then, too, she indulged in a little extra authorial license.

The tinkering doesn't bother Posner, who thinks so highly of freehand creative remodelings that he is considering starting an adaptations festival at Two River. "Adaptation is noble and fascinating and human," he says. "We do nothing in our lives but re-imagine and retranslate stories -- even our own personal narratives, right? You tell your own stories of your life, and you constantly are updating them slightly."

A colleague from one previous Posner adaptation project -- Philadelphia-based composer and sound designer James Sugg, who scored the Twain-based "A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage" -- has been pivotal to the creation of "Orestes." He has transformed portions of Washburn's text into a cappella songs performed by the production's chorus (and, here and there, other characters) -- a detail that echoes stage practice in Euripides' day.

Speaking by phone recently while traveling to New York, where he was reprising his Obie Award-winning performance in Pig Iron Theatre Company's "Chekhov Lizardbrain," Sugg said that Washburn's script demands tunes that are "somehow timeless and yet new." He's produced music that, he thinks, "sounds like Björk meets Meredith Monk." Also in the mix: a rap incorporating a few of Euripides' words in the original Greek. "It sounds really rad," Sugg said.

"It's its own invention," Posner says of the music, which he believes helps conjure "an imaginative landscape which is not exactly any other world."

He and Washburn trekked into that landscape after their interview, heading to a rehearsal at the Folger Theatre. Portions of the stage had just been covered with small beige rocks, which -- on a thematic level -- underscored the idea of mortality: In the play Orestes and Electra face execution by stoning.

Crunching sonorously every time an actor walked on them, the rocks also offered comic potential for the Tiptoe Dance. "They are, unquestionably, unbelievably loud," Posner marveled. He stood on the stage. "This is me flexing my toes," he told his colleagues. The stones crackled eloquently.

But conscious of the tonal balancing act that "Orestes" needs to tread, the director cautioned his cast against overdoing the humor. "Even though it's a little goofy," he told them, a short while later, "don't let your thoughts go to goofy."

Wren is a freelance writer.

Orestes, A Tragic Romp

plays through March 7 at Folger Elizabeth Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit http://www.folger.edu.

Read Peter Marks's review of "Orestes, A Tragic Romp" in next week's Style.

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