THE HOUSE OF ATREUS TRILOGY with Karen Robinson, Sean Arbuckle, Sarah Dodd, Dion Johnstone, Scott Wentworth, Steve Cumyn, Sara Topham, Walter Borden, Maria Vacratsis, Randi Helmers, Ron Kennell and Julie Tepperman. Presented by the Stratford Festival at the Studio Theatre, Stratford. $50-$57.50. Running in rep to August 30. 1-800-567-1600.
AGAMEMNON by Aeschylus, directed by David Latham. Rating: NNNN
ELECTRA by Jean Giraudoux, directed by Leon Rubin. Rating: NNNN
THE FLIES by Jean-Paul Sartre, directed by Peter Lichtenfels. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNN
The House of Atreus can stand any number of remodelling schemes, both classical and modern. In fact, the Stratford Festival is offering three different refurbished versions of the ancient Greek legend, a story fuelled by several generations of bloody family revenge.
Played in the Studio Theatre's intimacy, the trio of dramas is among the best work at this year's festival. Why? The story's compelling, the acting ensemble's strong, and in two cases the directors know how to get to the tale's emotional heart.
The first play, logically, is Aeschylus 's Agamemnon , the start of his Oresteia trilogy dating from the fifth century BC. In a vibrant translation by Ted Hughes - who also adapted Soulpepper's recent Phèdre - we're thrust into a world of hope, pride and deception when warrior king Agamemnon ( Sean Arbuckle ) returns home from the Trojan War with spoils that include the seer Cassandra ( Sara Topham ).
He's soon killed by his wife, Clytemnestra ( Karen Robinson ), both for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia 10 years earlier and for bringing home a new bed partner. Clytemnestra glosses over the fact that she herself has taken a lover, Aegisthus ( Scott Wentworth ), sent away her son, Orestes, and turned her daughter, Electra, into a palace servant.
Director David Latham 's production has a few too-obvious visual images and doesn't always handle the chorus well, but the central figures are vivid creations. That includes Steve Cumyn as the innocently comic watchman who opens the play and later as a physical, staccato-rhythmed herald.
Arbuckle's powerful as the prideful king, humbling his wife in public, and though Wentworth appears only briefly, he suggests Aegisthus's dangerous nature.
But this production is dominated by Topham, a twitchy, prophesying Cassandra who belches and vomits forth future tragedies that no one believes, and by Robinson, a compelling, initially unctuous, later exultant and always manipulative Clytemnestra.
The next two plays deal with the return home of Orestes ( Dion Johnstone ), his reconciliation with Electra ( Sarah Dodd ) and their revenge on their mother and Aegisthus. But the French scripts - Jean Giraudoux 's Electra from the 1930s, Jean-Paul Sartre 's The Flies from the 40s - are both grounded in their own time.
That's what's splendid and surprising about what seemed - when the season was announced - to be an unlikely trilogy of plays. Why not, I thought, just do all of the Oresteia and follow the story to its conclusion that way?
But with Electra, it's clear that the focus of the stagings isn't on the narrative development of the House of Atreus story but, rather, on philosophical and cultural development. What we get are three distinct takes on myths and the gods, specific to each writer's time and place.
After the starkness of Agamemnon, in Electra we're in a palace garden filled with flowers and vines. There's a classical arch, but the pillars are splintered in the set by Lorenzo Savoini , who designed all three shows.
And the tone is sometimes closer to drawing-room comedy than to tragedy. Robinson's Clytemnestra here is a put-upon society wife and looks like she stepped out of a Noel Coward play in costumes by Sarah Armstrong (again, designer for all three productions), while Wentworth's Aegisthus becomes a charming yet insecure CEO.
There's an almost farcical subplot about a husband ( Walter Borden ) cuckolded by his vampish younger wife (Topham, again captivating), and a clownish, mysterious beggar (Arbuckle) who reveals darkly comic truths and could have wandered out of Waiting For Godot.
Dodd's implacable Electra, whose idealism is at odds with Aegisthus's practicality, is only occasionally in command in the part, and Johnstone's Orestes is too neutral a figure.
Though Giraudoux's long-winded script leaps about thematically, director Leon Rubin presents it as the lightest and most appealing of the three shows. He knows the value of stage images, especially those involving a trio of Eumenides ( Julia Donovan , Randi Helmers and Julie Tepperman ), the mythical Furies who age during the show from youngsters to grown-ups.
There's far more darkness - and often more philosophy than drama - in Sartre's existential, contemporary-toned The Flies.
Orestes takes revenge in a corrupt, rotting society where the ever-guilty populace is at the mercy of the title insects, Zeus's creatures, here wearing gas masks. After Orestes kills his mother and her lover at the urging of a bitter, ironic Electra, he refuses to feel remorse and also rejects the worship of Zeus (a saturnine, striking Cumyn), moving on to create his own destiny.
Peter Lichtenfels 's pedestrian direction gives the piece little dramatic strength, nor does the awkward translation engage the audience emotionally. Still, there are some good performances, including that of Maria Vacratsis as the vampiric lead Fury in the final act. That act, in fact, proves the production's most theatrically satisfying.