Besides showcasing local performers in the 20 months since it opened its doors at the old Creamery, the Arcata Playhouse has hosted a number of visiting productions. These not only provide opportunities for North Coast audiences, but also for local theatre artists to see interesting work developed elsewhere, especially from larger theatre centers. And thanks to the Irvine Foundation-funded California Ensemble Touring Initiative, there may be more such opportunities coming along.
The most recent visitors were the Ghost Road Company of Los Angeles, presenting their new version of a play from the dawn of Western drama: Elektra, the re-titled and reconceived middle play in the trilogy by Aeschylus known as the Oresteia.
"Aeschylus was the first towering figure of the theatre, the first highly individualized voice," writes Ronald Harwood, playwright and theatre historian. Aeschylus fought in at least one of the major battles that ensured Greek independence from Persia, and he wrote as Athenian democracy was inventing itself. He competed in the contest for tragedy at the annual Dionysian festival for 15 years before he won. His innovations were remarkable. By reducing the chorus and adding a second actor who talks to the first, he invented what we think of as dialog -- or, for that matter, a play. He transformed tragic poetry into tragic drama.
Aeschylus is believed to have written some 90 plays (he won that contest at least 12 times), though only seven plays survive, and scholars don't agree that even all of these are his. But his greatest achievement -- and still one of the great epics of theatre -- is the Oresteia trilogy.
A 1991 production in New York is described by critic Frank Rich as meticulous, elaborate and very controlled, expressing the vision of its director, Ariane Mnouchkine. Ghost Road's approach, as members of the company discussed it after their opening performance in Arcata, is pretty much the opposite.
Aeschylus was only the starting point. Though director Katharine Noon also adapted the text, this version was created by the ensemble. They sought to make the story accessible, stripping it down to its "nuts and bolts" and viewing it as basically the story of a family, although a very bloody one. In the first play, King Agamemnon kills his youngest daughter so the gods will grant him fair winds to make war on Troy. When he returns victorious, his wife, Clytemnestra, retaliates by murdering him. In the second play -- the one Ghost Road brought to Arcata -- their son Orestes murders his mother.
To re-imagine this in contemporary terms, the ensemble collected photographs and articles, did "free-writing" and improvised scenes, switching characters so that eventually every member of the company had played every part. The workshop sessions were videotaped and transcripts were made, which Noon incorporated in versions of the script as it evolved.
This version centers on Elektra (played by Alina Phelan), who worships her dead father, Agamemnon, and campaigns for the return of her lost brother, Orestes. She lives in a tent festooned with hand-scrawled signs ("Have you seen Orestes?" "Where's My Brother?"), and rants on her perpetual radio show, suggesting the hysteria of the Dionysian rites that only slightly predate Greek drama, as well as Rush Limbaugh.
The characters of Clytemnestra and Orestes are more ambiguous and familiar: the career woman mother, the assassin with doubts (Orestes may have been a prototype for Hamlet). The gorgeous language of Aeschylus (in some English translations, at least) is entirely gone, replaced by contemporary dialog and ritual telegrams, like "Waiting -- then things start happening all at once, and all the time."
The Oresteia is famous for depicting the transition from revenge to justice, and there is a hint of it in Orestes' brief misgivings in this play, but most of it occurs in the third play. So while the Ghost Road take on the middle play is involving as theatre, it is incomplete: more intriguing than tragic or transcendent.
The real interest is the stagecraft and the high level of acting by everyone in the company. Phelan and Brian Weir, as Hermione, had the most lines and were the most memorable, but the other actors also deftly created defined characters.
Many in the Ghost Road ensemble studied at Cal Arts but one member with them in Arcata was Ronnie Clark, an HSU Theatre graduate, who played Orestes.
Ghost Road is adapting all three plays for performance together in L.A. in the spring.
Elsewhere: Ferndale Rep is a week into a run of Noises Off, the clever comedy by Michael Frayn that matches backstage shenanigans with a bad play being poorly performed, in what has become a very popular farce. Information: www.ferndale-rep.org.
Thursday, Oct. 16, Humboldt State opens Shakespeare's late romance, The Winter's Tale, for two weekends. It's directed by Rae Robison, currently on stage in North Coast Rep's The Merry Wives of Windsor. Information at HSUstage.blogspot.com.