April 19, 2012
One always takes a chance when watching a “modernized” anything. While it is wtrue that tragedies of the Greek tradition still provide lasting resonance with the universal concerns we torture ourselves with—love, family, war— we also have daytime soap operas, “Breaking Bad” and “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” The pretense, in both senses, of a backdrop of mythology is no longer necessary to get Aesopian lessons and entertainment simultaneously. The urge to modernize, to update classics and overlay hodiernal concerns on eternal strifes, requires walking a fine line between hamfisted preaching and deft commentary. But by marrying Charles Mee’s imperfect script with a dark but cheeky cyber-gothic aesthetic and well curated cast, director Craig Latrell more than provides a thought-provoking, engrossing and perversely enjoyable theatrical experience.
From the get-go, it is the small touches of set and symbol that free the script from the page and grab hard without remorse the attention and curiosity of the audience. Minor Theater is certainly far from a great canvas for dramatic settings, but that decrepitness is exactly why Andrew Holland and the labors of his construction crew (I hardly believe the four listed were the only contributors) deserve emphatic plaudits for their imaginative and well-executed face lift.
The two stories overlook our story, every inch used and granted importance. Space and place are warped constantly, the hospice intruded on by conspiracy, media voyeurism and entire worlds—personal, past and fictional.
You walk in, perhaps after a cocktail or two, perhaps with a friend or two, perhaps distracted by papers or hook ups or graduation, and are hit immediately by your surroundings, immersing and fascinating. Is that blood on the tub? Who is that dangling and invalidated invalid? What has happened when I could not watch? This sensory pummel does not relent for more than 45 minutes, but as an exercise in thought it proves rewarding. Bathed in the clunky wall of exposition from the complex Electra—whose words and movements are brought alive by first year Wynn van Dusen’s begging-for-an-adjective-other-than-electrfying-but-still-synonymous-because-the-pun-would-be-shockingly-painful performance—you are thrust into the story. Mee keeps the language heavy and assaulting, evoking the experience of watching Shakespeare having never read it, but the staging keeps one from drowning in it, although treading water is encouraged.
The symbols beg reflection on our modern culture—the dying patient clutches a laptop, but we are not told to judge that choice, just see it. The child is played by a doll, stripped of all agency, put on a cutesy tricycle and tasked with something she is not allowed to understand. We can only observe it, forcing on the role the fetishistic innocence and unthinking existence expected —stupidly —of American youth. But the best achievement of this modernization begins with the riveting entrance of senior Jordyn Taylor’s Helen.
Generations older than the current crop of undergraduates rightly speak of a divide between on- and offline. But for us, this digital dualism is anachronism, an iPhone in a Euripides play. Social media, texting, and rapid data-retrieval have salvaged meme from Anthropology textbooks, morphed our lives and saturated our culture. Latrell injects his play with meta-tweeting, multimedia walls, livestreams of what’s happening directly in front of the spectator and rivers of disorienting information. The theater no longer provides shelter from our new reality, and as your attention is drawn from wall to wall to ringtone to the cellphone in your own pocket (go ahead, check Facebook, Brecht would want it), its is impossible not to question it all. Whether Latrell’s choices are the shadows in Plato’s Cave or the light of the sun becomes immaterial, regardless, you are aware that something is happening. That this is Then mixed with Now.
There is one thing though that raises tension and reflection in a way unintended by writer or director. Kadahj Bennett ’12 in the role of Tyndareus delivers the most compelling performance of the play. For this he deserves nothing but praise. But Charles Mee, in transforming Tyndareus—a wise royal – into another clichéd and racially tinged “Magical Negro” inadvertently shines a bright light on the fact that despite the lip-service paid to progressive causes by the Institutionalized White Males of the theater world, it is a guilty and snooty old liberalism that is pervasive. The trope is made even more obvious by costuming Kadahj as the Morgan-Freeman-archetype.
This is no fault in casting by Latrell— navigating the talent of Mr. Bennett away from a role written for a black male because he is a black male would be just as racially uncomfortable as its existence. The monologue is worth hearing and is as incisive as the play gets. But as an audience we must be cognizant of what, on a meta-level, is happening. What progress has been made is still guided into pre-assigned boxes even in the most (presumedly) liberalized entertainment medium, and the obstacles confronted by students of color remain and will be markedly different than their majority counterparts until radical demographic changes occur.
This, however sadly, is one area where the modernization implied by 2.0 succeeds, in spite of itself.
Truthfully, I have no great affection for the script—perhaps this historical relic should have remained buried or if such an act of reanimation was necessary, Mr. Mee should at least pointed its dialogue to p90x. It could have used a little thinning and strengthening, and that stuff gets results. But driven constantly forward by the natural charisma of John Whitney ’12, the unquestionable chops of Michael Breslin ’13, the frantic background tragedies of the well-acted Nod-John-William trio, the tantalizing mystery of Tapemouth Woman and all the thespian turns mentioned above, Orestes 2.0 is a rare must-see on campus for those willing to engage with something exhausting and exhilarating for the mind.
The darkness and shadows of the lighting never lifts. But this is fitting. Giorgio Agamben, in analyzing the apparati of modern times, writes that “the contemporary is the one whose eyes are struck by the beam of darkness that comes from his own time.” This play takes the beam of darkness and projects it in words, sounds and video. There is always time to start thinking.