Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2004
This is not a very good production of Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon.” The 95% of the acting is quite atrocious, but you are distracted frequently by the bad costumes, so that provides some relief. The set, on the other hand, is quite striking, which is a trick in the narrow confines of Main Street Stage.
I did not read the script ahead of time, as I knew that this production drew from a number of different translations and so reading any one straight through would not give me a feel for what I would be seeing on the stage. I did do some research, as I always do before reviewing a show, but I confess that ancient Greek drama and history is not my forte. Therefore I attended the show knowing more than most but much less than some about the entire saga of the House of Atreus.
I mention this because knowing the WHOLE story, and not just what transpires during the two hours of this play, is very important. It was important to Aeschylus, certainly, as almost the entire play consists of people telling you what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen, over and over and over and over again. The result is that you come away feeling that nothing has happened at all, even though a great deal of action takes place off stage during the play – Troy falls, the Greek army returns home victorious, and Agamemnon and Cassandra are murdered. But on stage there is nothing but talk, mostly about the past, some about the present, and a few horrific glimpses of the future.
Obviously, Aeschylus did not expect his audience to have done any research ahead of time. But his audience, uneducated or even illiterate as they may have been, was at least living in the world of the play. We are not, and therefore we need to know not only what Aeschylus tells us, but what that world was like and why all this was important to these people. And I have big questions about whether or not an evening of theatre should require an hour or more of homework from the average theatre-goer. Certainly, the average person on the street will be deeply mystified and probably bored by this play.
So why did director Frank La Frazia select this show? Because he loves it. After interviewing him and assistant director Rachael Hayes for the preview article I have no doubt that they were both absolutely smitten with this play and deeply involved in its world. That is an excellent reason to do a show. Ideally, theatre is not about making money, which Greek tragedy certainly won’t do in this day and age, but about creating art that you believe in passionately. In an ideal world that passion on the part of the director will transfer to the performers and through them to the audience. In this production that happens exactly once.
After an hour of talk, mostly by the three-person Chorus – Ann Viera, Peg Malloy, and Andrew Bemis – and a very long ten-minute intermission, Agamemnon (Jeremy Clowe) and Cassandra (Alyssa Sklar) enter. Clowe is considerably better than anything that has gone before, and manages not to look too silly in his costume (more on that later.) Sklar is mute for an entire scene. But you cannot take your eyes off of her. And then she speaks and you are riveted. “My god,” I thought, “She’s ACTING!” Suddenly I cared. I cared about Cassandra and about what she was saying. All the earlier babble had drifted in one ear and out the other. I had found my mind wandering, the way if often will during a mediocre sermon at church, when you are being talked at and not engaged. Sklar understood what she was saying and doing and brought it all to life. It was a wonderful epiphany.
The Chorus, and the dreadful Shaun Fogarty in a variety of roles and ludicrous costumes, have no clue what they are doing or saying, and it shows. Even the talented Alexia Trova as Clytemnestra flubs her lines periodically, reminding you that she is merely reciting and not living the words.
I mentioned that the set was inspired. LaFrazia designed it, and it is embodied with his deep love and vision for this production. Painted all in white, the long, narrow playing space is foreshortened, making it less tunnel-like. Stage right is an angled doorway with a raised entryway framed by two simple pillars. Low on the back wall is a protruding rectangle. At the opening, a single candle burns, encased in what appears to be a miniature lighthouse – a striking visual of the light left burning to lead the long-awaited troops home from the Trojan War.
Now the costumes. What was Sarah Mikulis thinking and why did LaFrazia let her think it? At the start of the show the lights dim, you see the magical burning light of the little lighthouse in the dark, and then lights come back up and there is Fogarty in a grey flannel skirt, some kind of a beige-ish floppy top over another beige-ish floppy top, knee-high rubber boots, a goofy hat that probably came from Old Navy, and a white half-mask. Even if he could act, it would be a trick in that absurd get-up. But he can’t act, and so your first impression is one of absolute horror. It is more horrible to contemplate sitting through two hours of awful acting in ridiculous costumes than two hours of reenacted murder and mayhem.
Things do get better. Fogarty never wears a decent costume, but the Chorus is nicely kitted out in matching striped shirts and pants that have a home-spun, lineny look. Clytemnestra looks like she is dressed for the Oscars, which is okay, I guess, if you are the Queen, and Agamemnon looks far more Scottish than Greek, but Cassandra looks just beautiful. I wish LaFrazia had used a stronger hand and unified the look of the costumes as he did the look of the set.
Would I recommend you spend your hard earned money and valuable time seeing this show? Alas, no. Even if you are studying Greek drama and have an exam coming up next week this production won’t offer you much assistance. It is a labor of love, but it is not a success.
“Agamemnon” runs February 26-28 and March 5-7, 12 & 13 at 8 p.m., with 3 p.m. matinees on March 7 & 14. I will be seeing the show on March 5 and posting my review on this page the following day. Beginning March 5 tickets are $12 for adults and $8 for students. For reservations or more information call Main Street Stage at 413-663-3240 or visit their Web site. The theatre is located at 57 Main Street in North Adams, a few doors east of Papyri Books.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004