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5 things to know to know about the ‘The Oresteia,’ the seldom-seen fountainhead of drama

Director Michael Kahn, center, introduces his actors before an open rehearsal of “The Oresteia” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

If “The Oresteia” is a juicy saga of family revenge swelling into public justice, and also the only trilogy we have from ancient Greece, why is it so rarely staged?

“People are afraid of them,” says Ellen McLaughlin, the writer tapped with adapting the cycle of plays by Aeschylus. “The Greeks were always asking the hardest questions, and they looked for the most disturbing images they could find. And they found them.”

The project is artistic director Michael Kahn’s drop-the-mic exit at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, after arriving in 1986 and leading the troupe from the small Elizabethan stage at the Folger Shakespeare Library to two big new stages in Penn Quarter. For a director who has thoroughly explored Shakespeare, whose production of Sophocles’s “Oedipus Plays” toured Greece in 2003 and whose troupe won the regional Tony Award in 2012, tackling “The Oresteia” resembles climbing the last big mountain on the range.

“It’s just hard,” Kahn says of the bloody story of Agamemnon (returning home from the Trojan War), his justifiably angry wife Clytemnestra, and their scandalized children, Electra and Orestes. The sacrifice of daughter Iphigenia before the cycle even begins launches a wave of retribution that takes three plays to resolve.

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Two productions of “The Oresteia” appeared lately in London, and a version set in modern Iraq (dubbed “Orestes in Mosul”) is underway in Belgium. But for American theatergoers, a full, professional “Oresteia” is hard to come by. After several years of planning and workshops, the show begins performances April 30 in the STC’s Sidney Harman Hall with McLaughlin streamlining things to less than 2  1 / 2 hours. Here are five things to know about this rarely seen work and the troupe’s approach.

“The Oresteia” shows theater and democracy emerging at the same time.

Aeschylus, an Athenian general who fought in the victory at Marathon, is the playwright credited with bringing a second character into dramas that had previously featured only a single actor in front of a chorus. With two actors, McLaughlin says, “Suddenly the audience leans forward. Now we have a job, which is to determine the truth.”

The disputants in “The Oresteia” frequently argue that vengeance is the way to punish crimes. In Aeschylus’s telling, deities called the Furies show up to goad more blood-for-blood, and eventually the goddess Athena arrives to help humans create law and order — a pivotal new concept in the fledgling Athenian democracy.

Establishing theater as an extension of the public square, Aeschylus’s trilogy hashes out options. “He’s the first master of agon, which is dialogue,” McLaughlin says. “Greeks fell head over heels in love with it. They used it in politics. They loved debate. They would go to plays because they loved debate between two equally articulate, viable speakers.”

McLaughlin’s adaptation takes liberties with the original.

McLaughlin and Kahn have looked hard at how the original trilogy does — and does not — speak to our 21st century moment.

“I couldn’t do what Aeschylus does because we’re not at the dawn of civilization,” McLaughlin says of her optimistic source material, written as Athens flourished in the 5th century B.C. Kahn and Drew Lichtenberg, the STC’s literary manager, steered her toward “Orestes” by Euripides — a slightly later tragedian who took a darker view after Athens’s stark loss in the Peloponnesian War.

“His version is horrifying,” says McLaughlin, whose dozen-plus Greek adaptations includes “The Persians” at the STC in 2006. “It’s one of the most cynical plays I’ve ever read. It’s basically saying, ‘We have lost control. There is no more rule of law.’ ”

Her “Oresteia” adaptation — which she and Kahn stress is a frequent departure from Aeschylus, with characters added and deleted — seeks a middle ground. “I need hope,” McLaughlin says. “I think all of us do.”

The gods don’t play a part in this version. (But the Furies do.)

“Deus ex machina” is the term for the “god in the machine” that sometimes descended to impose an ending on Greek plays.

“I don’t have any gods in mine,” McLaughlin says, though she adds that the Furies still play a part. “I don’t think we have recourse to gods right now.”

“The gods make people do things in Aeschylus,” Kahn says. “My version is: It’s [the characters’] subconscious that makes them do these things. That’s just called ‘gods.’ The Greeks knew that somehow. When I talk to actors, I can say, ‘The god is making you do this, but how you get there, you have to find out what’s inside yourself that makes that happen.’ ”

“What the gods want is stories,” McLaughlin says. “They’re interested in us because we die. Mortality is what makes us interesting.” When Aeschylus has Athena play a role in the outcome of “The Oresteia,” “The idea that a god says, ‘This is out of my league’ — she’s saying these are human problems, and they need human solutions,” McLaughlin says. “That is vital information for us right now. We have to figure this out, or we destroy ourselves. That is what the Greeks are constantly saying: We have to figure this out.”

The biggest challenge was what to do with the chorus.

Deciding how to handle the ancient idea of a Greek chorus is “The hardest thing, always,” Kahn says. The chorus is often the voice of the citizens, witnessing and reacting to events. McLaughlin has pondered how they move and talk; Kahn says they won’t dance and sing (which is the chorus’s roots).

The most dramatic events in Greek drama typically happen offstage, reported by breathless messengers or a chorus that might be apprehensive or giddy, depending on the news. Kahn and McLaughlin aren’t entirely on board with that, and the design team Kahn has assembled to make his final STC production vivid includes Jennifer Tipton (lights), Susan Hilferty (costumes and a set that Kahn describes as a House of Atreus on lava), and Kamala Sankaram (composer of the underscoring).

“Aeschylus is full of somebody coming in and telling you what happened,” Kahn says. “All three plays are. Great messengers come in and tell you the whole thing. Well, that’s not very dramatic. It can be very beautiful. But this is trying to tell a very long story. So how can some of it be represented in a poetic way onstage?”

If the theatrics have been nudged forward a couple millennia, so has the role of the chorus, which is poised, McLaughlin says, to be a communal unit, but also a collection of individuals. Not that all of Aeschylus’s notions of the chorus have been abandoned.

“I still want the Furies,” McLaughlin says, “to be surprising and scary.”

Acting Greek tragedy “messes with your dreams.”

Performing before thousands of spectators outdoors in daylight, ancient Greek actors got physical boosts from several costume elements — most famously, from masks. “I wouldn’t use that, ever,” says McLaughlin, an actor herself (she played the Angel in the landmark early productions of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America”). “The face is where everything happens.”

Kahn says that to act Greek tragedy, “You have to have size, go for big things, feel strong things. You have to know what obsession is, and what possession is. But you have to be human.”

“You cannot hold back,” McLaughlin says. “You have to go all the way. It’s scary, and it messes with your dreams. The plays are disturbing and perplexing. If you’re not having a few bad nights while you’re rehearsing these plays, you’re not rehearsing them right.”

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Dates: Tuesday-June 2.

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