‘Agamemnon’ at Court: Queen welcomes king with smile and nice bath in his own hot blood
“Agamemnon” by Aeschylus, in a new translation by Nicholas Rudall, at Court Theatre through Dec. 6. ★★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Agamemnon, king of Argos and commander of the vast Greek expeditionary force that conquered Troy after 10 years of fighting, is home from the war at last – victorious, exhausted and, not least, wreathed in guilt. That is the proposition of Aeschylus’ tragedy “Agamemnon,” which now enters its final weekend of performances in an imaginative, keen-edged production at Court Theatre directed by Charles Newell.
“Agamemnon” is the second installment in a three-year Greek trilogy at Court that began in 2014 with Euripides’ “Iphigenia in Aulis” and concludes in 2016 with Sophocles’ “Electra” – all in new translations by classics scholar Nicholas Rudall, who was Court’s founding artistic director.
While it isn’t necessary to have seen “Iphigenia” to understand “Agamemnon,” it is essential to know the central theme of that prefatory play: With his entire Troy-bound fleet stalled at Aulis by the angry god Artemis, who has stopped the winds, Agamemnon is informed by his priests that only the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia would induce Artemis to allow his restless forces to continue on their way.
Thus torn between paternal love and the imperative of a commander responsible for thousands of men, Agamemnon summons his daughter from Argos to Aulis, where she arrives with her mother Clytemnestra, on the pretext that she is to be wed to none less than the greatest of Greek warriors, Achilles. To Clytemnestra’s horror and despite her desperate appeals, Agamemnon makes good on his pledge and kills the girl.
Now he is back from the long war, and Clytemnestra, heart-broken mother and long-raging wife, awaits him. Meanwhile, with her lover Aegisthus, she has ruled over Argos. The pair also have plotted Agamemnon’s instant death upon his return. This is the seemingly straightforward setting of Aeschylus’ drama, except that the playwright throws in a double twist of human nature. It is Newell’s measured, insightful approach to Aeschylus’ sly turn, and its reverse, that renders this “Agamemnon” so fresh and exhilarating.
Or to settle the credit where it is substantially due, the power of this production resides crucially in Sandra Marquez’s charged and touching Clytemnestra. Not unlike England’s Elizabeth I, this woman has had to step up to rule in a man’s world, and Marquez conveys both the regal manner and the harrowing weight of that responsibility. She is indeed Clytemnestra Rex.
Yet here is her husband, great Agamemnon (Mark L. Montgomery), before her once more, a man’s man – her man. There’s an almost operatic quality in the lyricism of Rudall’s translation and in the trajectory of Marquez’s emotional progression: from ferocious ecstasy when she learns that the Greeks have prevailed, to a palpable weakening of resolve when she beholds this tired but tremendous king whom she once treasured.
Then the second shoe drops. Almost casually, incidentally, Montgomery’s august king indicates one of the prizes he has brought back with him: the war-wife Cassandra (Adrienne Walker). This beautiful Trojan princess, who has the gift of prescience (qualified by the curse that no one will ever believe her), will now be part of Agamemnon’s household, his comfort, well earned in long war-making. And with that insulting revelation, Clytemnestra’s bloody purpose is restored.
As if to add weight to the righteousness of her deed, Clytemnestra orders a royal purple carpet placed on the stairs to the grand entrance of the palace (the imposing centerpiece of Scott Davis’ otherwise spare set). Marquez and Montgomery engage in a witty, albeit fatal, exchange of entreaties and dismissals as Clytemnestra implores the king to take this royal path to his homecoming and he, like Caesar waving off the crown, insists that it’s all too much – and then indulges himself in that act of arrogance. The gods might forgive a man for slaying his own daughter, but there is no clemency for hubris.
While the bathtub slaughter of Agamemnon and Cassandra happens off-stage, Clytemnestra and her consort Aegisthus (Michael Pogue) present the ravaged bodies to the amazed citizens of Argos with a grand flourish that I shall not spoil here. Thus she trumpets her vengeance for all to see. But in the Greek moral code, vengeance begets vengeance, and the gods play midwife. Agamemnon has a son, Orestes, and he is coming – next season at Court, in Sophocles’ “Electra.”
Not the least intriguing aspect of this production is Newell’s creative treatment of the classical Greek chorus, reduced here to four lively actors (Alfred H. Wilson, Thomas J. Cox, Gary Wingert and Gabriel Ruiz) who gossip, speculate and comment much like guys sitting around in a barber shop. Newell’s fluent direction, like Rudall’s conversational translation, expresses both the distance between royal affairs and the common folk on the one hand and the genuine concern of the people on the other. There’s authentic humanity on view here.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
- Preview of Court Theatre’s complete 2015-16 season. Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com