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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, October 23, 2003

War flows through Greek tragedy

By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Advertiser Drama Critic

 •  'Agamemnon'

Adapted from Aeschylus by Steven Berkoff

11 p.m. tomorrow, Saturday

Ernst Lab Theatre, UH-Manoa

$8, $7, & $3


Steven Berkoff's "Agamemnon" is one of the most ambitious works to appear in the University of Hawai'i's Late Night season in some time.

An actor, producer, and playwright, Berkoff also penned a string of powerful adaptations that filter original works though his distinctive world view — making them emotionally hard-hitting, vicious and direct.

For this play, Berkoff reaches back to 458 B.C. to rework the first part of Greek playwright Aeschylus' "Orestia" trilogy. His version of "Agamemnon" centers on the immorality of war and its attendant atrocities, exhaustion and futility. Written in 1973 during anti-war sentiment over Vietnam, the adaptation makes a tangential but clear political statement. Director Cassandra Wormser footnotes that message with a glancing reference to the United States again sending troops to foreign war and a mythic tone that makes the Trojan War the symbol for all brutal conflict.

Wormser's staging in the Earl Ernst Lab Theatre matches the script's power with intelligent and strong visual images and a ceremonial style that blends song, dance, and choral speaking. But the production travels almost totally on its form, and a casual audience would be well served by program notes that signal just what in heck is going on.

The stunning opening scene illustrates the curse of the House of Atreus, originated when Agamemnon's father slaughtered his brother's children and fed them to him at a palace feast. The event is narrated in a graphic monologue by a surviving child (D. Omar Williams), while the chorus sits cross-legged, choreographically gorging on flesh with oversized knives and forks.

There is no traditional dialogue in this production, which uses long speeches supported by stylized choral pantomime to advance the story. This aggressively theatrical approach works well in linking contemporary sensibilities to the rituals of Greek theater more than 2500 years old.

Events move forward quickly, with the chorus using hula steps and wooden sticks to bring us to the brink of the Trojan War. Paris (Terry Allen) symbolically wraps Helen (Lizbeth Grote) in a length of red fabric, which puddles at her feet to symbolize the start of more bloodshed.

Agamemnon (Aito Steele) leaves behind his wife Clytemnestra (Annie Lipscomb) to lead coalition forces and sacrifices his daughter to placate the gods, motivating Clytemnestra to plot revenge. This is followed by ritualized warfare and scenes of numbing murder. Clytemnestra announces the victory over Troy, swirling long red sleeves to simulate flames of signal fires.

Agamemnon returns home, unadvisedly accompanied by his mistress Cassandra (Ashley Larson). Clytemnestra and Aegisthus kill them both and become lovers, setting off yet another cycle of bloodshed.

While the performance ends with a breast-beating chorus quietly chanting "no more horrors," an informed audience knows that more blood will flow down through successive generations.

A short synopsis in the program wouldn't hurt a bit.