Modern dress, ancient emotions in urgent staging of Greek plays

The Oresteia: Agamemnon and Elektra/Orestes Plays by Aeschylus. Translated by Robert Fagles. Directed and designed by Christopher Martin. The City Stage Company (CSC) is no stranger to large enterprises and bold undertakings. The company's approximately 100 productions have included such omnibus works as a full-length ``Peer Gynt,'' Sophocles' ``Oedipus'' plays, Marlowe's ``Doctor Faustus,'' Yeats's six ``Cuchulain Plays,'' the ``Hollow Crown'' trilogy from Shakespeare, and Goethe's ``Faust (Parts 1 and 2).''

Recovered from recent financial problems, CSC has turned once more to the wellsprings of Western drama for its first production of the 1984-85 season, a two-part arrangement of ``The Oresteia'' of Aeschylus. ``Agamemnon'' alternates in repertory with a double bill of ``Elektra'' (``The Libation Bearers'') and ``Orestes'' (``The Eumenides''). At least once every weekend, CSC offers all three plays at a combination of matinee and evening performances.

As a means of giving immediacy to the far-off events in the fall of the House of Atreus, director-designer Christopher Martin has clothed his actors in contemporary costumes and accompanied some of the action with rock-music embellishments. Bob Jewett's discreetly employed score -- for synthesizer and percussion -- reinforces Robert Fagles's literate but idiomatic translation. The approach suits an acting ensemble variously accomplished in the handling of verse drama. Mr. Martin's dramatic use of lighting and other effects invests this ``Oresteia'' with genuine theatricality.

A thin haze, suggesting the mists of antiquity, fills the arena-style playhouse as the spectators gather. A suspended white sculpture of a Greek warrior looms above the scene, hinting at the spectacle to come. Each part of the CSC version is preceded by a prologue (the first borrowed from Euripides, the second from Euripides and Sophocles) recalling prior events in the savage family history. The prologues remind the audience of Agamemnon sacrificed his young daughter Iphigeneia to gain the god-given winds his becalmed ships needed to sail on to the Trojan War.

``Agamemnon'' dramatizes the king's victorious return from the bloody, 10-year campaign and his murder at the hands of Queen Clytemnestra and her paramour, Aegisthus. In ``Elektra,'' the royal couple's daughter welcomes the arrival of her brother, the exiled Orestes, who avenges Agamemnon's death by killing Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. ``Orestes'' concerns his pursuit by the Furies and the trial before the goddess Athena which absolves Orestes and brings the towering work to its resolution.

For Agamemnon's return from Troy, Martin has mounted the king on a chariot contraption that whirls around the stage (propelled by actor power), illuminated by a battery of hysterical spotlights that would do credit to a Hollywood premi`ere. Tom Spiller's bearded Agamemnon rides out the spinning entrance with aplomb while Essene R's Cassandra, the captive seer, hangs on behind for dear life. Martin concludes ``Agamemnon'' with a surprise piece of stage business that transcends translation.

Sheridan Crist gives a splendid performance as Orestes, bringing closely into focus the contemporary-classic elements of the CSC production. Mr. Crist's returning exile moves with growing resolution toward the crimes he must commit to avenge the crimes that have been committed. The themes of power and justice coincide in the double murder that ends ``The Libation Bearers.''

Orestes becomes once more the fugitive in ``The Eumenides,'' in which the Furies relentlessly pursue the young avenger as he seeks refuge in Apollo's temple at Delphi. Mr. Martin has a field day with Aeschylus' trial scene (an early model for courtroom dramas to come).

Charles H. Patterson's handsome black Apollo is as magnificent a champion as any Orestes could hope for. An actor of superb voice and diction, Mr. Patterson combines godlike authority with witty relish. Martin has clad both Apollo and Athena in mod white costumes. As the Athenians' own deity, pretty Amy Warner resembles nothing less than the reigning queen of a collegiate homecoming. However alien Athena's arguments may sound in the aftermath of 2,500 years, it's easy to see why she wins acquittal for Orestes.

Casting necessities require many of the 24 CSC members to play multiple roles. Besides those already mentioned, the principals in this Greek mini-festival include Karen Sunde (Clytemnestra), Keith Langsdale (Aegisthus), Ginger Grace (Elektra and a roller-skating Hermes), and Nancy Linehan (the Nurse).

``The Oresteia'' at the CSC is a workout for cast and spectators. But it is a workout with rewards as well as challenges. The production marks a further step in the career of a producing group that occupies a unique position in New York's institutional theater, founded on a devotion to major classic works and a dedication to repertory. Agamemnon, Elektra, Orestes, and company will be followed in due course this season by Moli`ere's ``George Dandin,'' Carl Sternheim's ``The Underpants,'' and a fifth play to be announced.

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