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THEATER REVIEW : An Eclectic 'Oresteia' Opens Actors' Gang's New Home

March 22, 1994|JAN BRESLAUER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To inaugurate its new home, the Actors' Gang has gone back to the roots of tragedy--and come up with some Attic antics. This eclectic "Oresteia" may be flawed, but it's just the kind of sprawling, exuberant production you'd expect from such a venturesome group. It's a fitting introduction to the Gang gestalt.

This "Oresteia"--composed of three one-act plays based on the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides--re-imagines the fall of the house of Atreus for a post-Cold War world in which the price of victory is moral collapse. The production showcases an impressive array of acting, directing and designing talents--and it almost overcomes the fact that two of the three adaptations are written in Charles L. Mee Jr.'s trademark deconstructivist idiom at its most gimmicky.

Mee's "Agamemnon" recounts the return of the titular hero (Ned Bellamy) to his wife, Clytemnestra (Clare Wren), after 10 years of war, and the revenge tragedy that follows. They are shadowed by a robed chorus of Beckettian sages--Homer (Joseph Grimm), Hesiod (Gary Kelley), Herodotos (Daniel Parker) and Thucydides (Michael Rivkin)--given to Joseph Campbell-like pronouncements on the power of myth.

A pre-show shroud of fog clears to reveal Mark Wendland's provocative set--an expansive playing area covered with opened books and upturned furniture. Director Brian Kulick stages "Agamemnon" with the deliberately methodical pacing and declamatory acting of standard-issue postmodernism.

Still, it's the pretentious dialogue rather than Kulick's staging that's the more problematic. Mee, after all, is the kind of adapter who's overly fond of snippets of academic texts and phrases like "I dreamed I had an iron penis."

*

Ellen McLaughlin's adaptation of "Electra," on the other hand, has none of the airs of Mee's "Agamemnon." Instead of a hodgepodge of found verbiage, hers is a lyrical, quietly feminist and often wry updating of the story of Clytemnestra and her children, directed with a shrewd but unobtrusive hand by Oskar Eustis.

The third part of the evening features the other Mee adaptation--a version of "Orestes" chock-full of interpolated passages from unrelated 20th-Century sources. Fortunately, director David Schweizer has hit upon the only appropriate response to such a text: He's staged it as farce. What's more, he has the energy--and a seemingly limitless well of shtick--to pull it off.

Set in a crazed hospital-asylum, the story of the smitten siblings Electra (Shannon Holt) and Orestes (James Parks) who've come to the end of their murderous line almost gets lost amid the barrage of faux medical mania and stage business that includes Carpenters tunes, group masturbation and earthquake jokes.

Surprisingly, more is more here. In fact, so much is going on all the time in this surreal environment that it actually provides a glimpse of the post-apocalypse, or at least of a society devalued to the point of meaninglessness.

Kulick, Eustis and Schweizer have all, with varying degrees of success, brought a distinct visual and theatrical style to their appointed texts. But not all the scripts are created equal. "Agamemnon" and "Orestes" sample 2,500 years of commentary that in the end winnow down to the Mee decade. McLaughlin's adaptation puts the focus on the characters and the story, and is the far superior work for it.

That the evening, which approaches the length of the Peloponnesian War, coheres is a tribute not only to the talented trio of directors, but also to the Gang and its guest actors (including the eminent and inimitable Alan Mandell--who will, however, temporarily be replaced by an understudy, returning March 31). If its first outing has its problems, Actors' Gang and its new home are still as essential to L.A. theater as the Greeks have been to the making of modern Western drama.

* "The Oresteia," Actors' Gang, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends April 17. $15. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 3 hours, 35 minutes.

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