Mark Jackson’s ‘new ancient Greek tragedy’ provides a new take on the Oresteia.
Photo by Kristin Calabria
While it is difficult to declare a most gruesome or treacherous play in the ancient Greek canon, the Oresteia—Aeschylus's trilogy about Agamemnon returning home from the Trojan War and the series of regicides that follow—is certainly in the running. In these tales of royals gone mad, the common people of the various Greek kingdoms affected by such violence and political instability are often forgotten. That's where Messenger #1 comes in.
A production of Hunger & Thirst Theatre, Messenger #1 by Mark Jackson reimagines the tale of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and their three children from the point of view of the messengers who serve them. While all of the plotting and bloodshed of the original myth remains, a new story takes hold with just as much danger and honor as that of the royals.
Messenger #2 (Jordan Kaplan), who was left behind in Argos for the ten long years of the Trojan War, is thrilled to welcome home his king and his fellow messengers. Messenger #1 (J.C. Ernst), who served in Troy during the war, is only interested in reuniting with the woman he loves back home in Argos. But that young maiden is an innocent slave no longer; she has since run away from her masters, disguised herself as a man and become Messenger #3 (Emily Kitchens).
That alone would be enough drama to occupy the time of the three royal servants, but when Messenger #2 discovers that Clytemnestra has murdered her husband and sold her children into slavery, an entirely new set of problems take hold. What is their responsibility to their former king to tell the truth about his violent death? Or to the new queen, whom they now serve and who can order their deaths on a whim? Or to the former prince and princess, now slaves in another city and unaware that their father will now never be able to rescue them from their captivity?
How to follow such a complex series of events? It begins with Jackson's inspired prose, an effortless fusion of ancient Greek poetic oratory and modern slang that welcomes the audience into his world, even as it distinctly separates the eloquent, sophisticated speech of the messengers from the profane and simplistic words of the royal family—making clear just who is responsible for the rich literary speeches we have come to associate with the myth. Costuming likewise separates the cast into two separate spheres, the grey uniform and running shoes of the messengers worlds away from the gothic garb and heavy eyeliner of the Argive royalty.
But more than that, it is the empathetic performance of the three messengers, caught in a whirlwind of tragedy not of their own making, that grounds us in this ancient story of love and loss. Kaplan, Ernst and Kitchens each develop their unnamed characters into deeply charismatic figures whom the audience will have no trouble rooting for throughout the performance. The three remaining members of the cast, Dan Morrison, Natalie Hegg and Katie Consamus, who together play all of the named characters in the tale, perfectly balance out the messengers in their petty caricatures of the former main personages of the myth.
Though the messengers' plot is a new piece of the story, the playwright's original characters fit neatly into the existing Greek canon, their struggle to behave with honor in impossible situations a familiar theme across many narratives. Messenger #3 in particular, an orphaned young woman determined to do what she believes is right for the exiled nobility of her city, even if it costs her her life, has much in common with the story of Antigone. And while these motifs are familiar ones in ancient Greek drama, Messenger #1 raises just as many fascinating questions about the role of journalism in that age and in our own: in an unstable political environment, whose side of the story do we have the responsibility to tell?
Director Hondo Weiss-Richmond's staging makes great use of the small performing space in The Paradise Factory, allowing audiences to get up close and personal with the actors in their most intimate moments. The messengers' athleticism and movement work particularly helps set the scene for these characters who regularly run from one city to another on a whim from the royal family, though the full cast movement sections are sometimes messy and unclear in comparison. The set, meanwhile, a series of intersecting lines across the floor and walls of the black box theater, resembles a map, expanding the world of the play and allowing the performance to feel as vast as it is confined and personal.
In any case, this is a play that is unafraid to be theatrical, though some elements (such as the symbolic red ribbons that unfurl during every murder) are more successful than others (including the somewhat bewildering costume and performance of the Furies come to seek revenge on Orestes). By the end, the fate of the three messengers feels just as tragic as any of the existing tales of the Trojan War, and much more meaningful than the bloodlust of the royal family they serve.
In Messenger #1, the life of a messenger is just as dangerous and as lonely as that of a king. It can also be more meaningful.
Messenger #1 plays at The Paradise Factory through March 18.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.