Arena Stage retells ancient tragedy

A low rumble of thunder escapes from the depths of the Arena Stage and mixes with an ominous blue light that captures the audience during the opening scene of Kenneth Cavander’s “Agamemnon and His Daughters.” The light refuses to relinquish the audience’s attention until the final scene of the nearly three hour production.

Performed in the round, “Agamemnon and His Daughters,” offers an intense sensory experience that places the audience in the middle of the action, beginning with Agamemnon’s greatest sacrifice – the life of his daughter, Iphigeneia. Cavander’s beautifully blended interpretation of six Greek tragedies examines the legend of Agamemnon and his three daughters, Iphigeneia, Elektra and Chrysothemis, and traces 20 years of violence and unsettling repercussions in a family torn apart by death and revenge.

Weary with traditional Greek plays, Cavander eliminates the confusion of family trees, Greek histories and the maze of myths that often bog down audiences. He reveals an easy-to-follow interpretation of events that utilizes traditional aspects, such as the chorus, to provide context in a simple, matter-of-fact way.

Cavander alleviates the burden of interpretation from the viewer by breaking his play into five scenes clearly depicting the effects of Agamemnon’s sacrifice on each of the other family members. Following the initial scene, where Iphigeneia is tricked into coming to the sacrificial altar by being told that it was her wedding altar, the second scene focuses on the grief of Iphigeneia’s mother, which quickly changes into a murderous and unforgiving rage. This anger in turn impresses on her remaining children a chilling and violent insanity that leads to their own destruction.

The portrayal of Agamemnon’s daughter Elektra (Natascia Diaz), is by far the most disturbing and fantastic of the reactions. Her madness is depicted in a brutal, well-choreographed dance that illustrates the anguish of her suffering. The scene transfers onto the audience an uneasy intensity that sets the tone for the onset of violence in the final part of the play.

Despite the heavy tone of the family tragedy, its dark sarcasm is joined with a lighter, wittier humor that eases the tension in the audience to the point of out-loud laughter.

In particular, Agamemnon’s relationship with his wife and Iphigeneia was filled with romantic irony and subtle humor that are more common of Shakespeare. While the remarks add to the degree of entertainment, at times the rushed humor and cutting criticisms were a distraction not always apropos of the scene or dialogue.

Likewise, the songs used in scene transitions lacked contributing substance. While the singing was superb, the context was over-dramatic and immature. But the chorus’ chants add a definite dimension to the play that helps the audience imagine what takes place offstage.

The elaborate costumes and simple set provided a perfect complement to the exquisite acting of the well-seasoned cast. The costumes act as a visual representation of the household’s downward spiral, with the chorus’ attire moving from happy pastels to brown, gauzy garments that accentuate their despair.

Unlike the ups and downs of Agamemnon’s family, “Agamemnon and His Daughters” retains a constancy that, in the end, leaves the viewer with an overwhelming fulfillment. While the ending makes light of the rich complexities of the play by oversimplifying the themes, the overall production continues to linger in the back of the mind playing and replaying the highlights of Cavander’s well-written and well-produced play.

“Agamemnon and His Daughters” is now playing

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