For his valedictory production as Shakespeare Theatre Company’s artistic director, Michael Kahn has chosen to take us back to the dawn of Western drama. It’s a harrowing excursion to be sure. But in his heart-stopping mounting of Aeschylus’s tragedy, “The Oresteia,” the final destination is not despair. It’s hope.
What a fitting and consoling point of conclusion from a director whose career has been guided so consequentially by the wisdom of the past. If “The Oresteia” — lyrically compressed and otherwise inspirationally modified by Ellen McLaughlin — sets sail on a river of blood, it floats back in on a tide of grace.
Kahn’s production, marked by the dynamic portrayals of Rad Pereira as Electra, Josiah Bania as Orestes and particularly Kelley Curran as vengeance-obsessed Clytemnestra, preserves the spare, feral authority of the text even as it puts a modern sheen on the story’s outcome. You may hear, in the trial of Electra and Orestes by a jury of ordinary Athenians, an argument against capital punishment that sounds as if the words spewed from an op-ed columnist’s laptop.
But unlike one of his other recent ventures, a “Hamlet” starring Michael Urie that was run through with faddish paranoia of the deep state, Kahn’s “Oresteia” doesn’t force old material to do new tricks. The judgment rendered on these offspring of Clytemnestra, who kill her in revenge for having slain their father, Agamemnon (Kelcey Watson), has a timeless sense of justice served. In our own time of relentless, toxic confrontation and hate-filled score-settling, the kinder verdict of the Chorus — embodied here by a diverse cadre of eight actors — comes across as the merciful break of a violent chain.
The creative team envisions this “Oresteia” as a series of family killings that lead to only more death, until the proletariat, deciding to think for themselves, at last intervenes. In McLaughlin’s version, the cycle of violence begins with Agamemnon sacrificing his young daughter Iphigenia (Simone Warren), a horrific deed to mollify the gods and end the drought of wind that has kept his fleet at anchor and unable to advance against the Trojan enemy.
The magnitude of this transgression reveals itself on Susan Hilferty’s monumental set: The towering house of the ruling family, rising amid a landscape of black, molten rock, has walls encrusted in scarlet. As Agamemnon leads Iphigenia to her doom, there is a — well, that’s as much as this reviewer will tell you. It’s enough to add that the horror, amplified by sound designer Cricket S. Myers and composer Kamala Sankaram, provokes a terrifying blowback.
Hilferty also designed the costumes, resplendent gowns for Clytemnestra, drab smocks and ragged turbans for the Chorus, who number among them the exceptional actresses Helen Carey and Franchelle Stewart Dorn (both rejoining the company for this farewell). Despite Clytemnestra’s radiance, though, there’s little sparkle in the House of Atreus: All three parts of this “Oresteia” occur at night, the domain of dreams and more to the point, nightmares, which the characters recount to one other, over and over. Even the stars in the night sky shrink and withdraw, as the permutations of human depravity grow darker.
The liberties the playwright and director take with the trilogy — completed in about 2½ hours, with one intermission — include eliminating some characters, such as Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover, who is implicated in Agamemnon’s death. The subtraction adds to the power of Curran’s performance and the grandeur of Clytemnestra’s rage: It is she alone who plots her revenge, killing both her husband and enslaved clairvoyant Cassandra (Zoë Sophia Garcia, in yet another of the production’s arresting, beautifully spoken portrayals).
Curran carries herself like a queen, evincing a heart so broken for a dead child that the grief makes believable the vacuum of feeling for her surviving children. It’s a performance built of majestic bitterness. Pereira’s stirring Electra, keeping watch over her father’s grave like a bird protecting a nest, proves to be her mother’s daughter, nursing a lust for revenge as ungovernable as Clytemnestra’s. Bania, as the son returning to an ancestral home that’s become a slaughterhouse, persuasively handles the malleable will of a weaker sibling who is egged on by a sister’s blood thirst.
The movement in the third act to the public tribunal for Orestes and Electra — and the tonal shift from unchecked spleen-venting to civilized discourse over rightful punishment — can feel on an evening even as skillful as this one like a bit of a dramatic stretch. At the same time, though, a case has been made for the real heroes of the story to step forward. This Chorus, it seems, has been watching, and learning, from the mistakes of its impulsively retaliatory leaders.
The blue of the sky has gone away, a character laments in “The Oresteia.” It will take the people, it seems, to restore it.
The Oresteia, by Aeschylus, adapted by Ellen McLaughlin. Directed by Michael Kahn. Lighting, Jennifer Tipton; fight choreography, Robb Hunter; movement, Jennifer Archibald. With Corey Allen, Kati Brazda, Jonathan Louis Dent, Alvin Keith, Patrena Murray and Sophia Skiles. About 2 hours and 20 minutes. $44-$118. Through June 2 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. 202-547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.