Review by Ann Firestone Ungar
In 1966, when Tom Stoppard reimagined Hamlet by plucking from it two minor characters and giving them fully developed personalities for his groundbreaking existential play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, perhaps he suggested to the fertile imagination of playwright Mark Jackson a way to reimagine The Oresteia by Greek playwright Aeschylus, c. 500 B.C. Jackson’s Messenger #1, A New Ancient Greek Tragedy, now given a terrific production by Hunger & Thirst Theatre, plucks the few messengers and much of the plot from the three ancient tragedies which comprise The Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides). It tells the story of the bloody royal House of Atreus through the perspectives of three of its messengers and drags them into their very own cycle of sorrow and murders.
It helps to know The Oresteia. Briefly, it’s the story of King Agamemnon’s (Dan Morrison) triumphant return from the Trojan Wars, only to be murdered by his waiting wife, Clytemnestra (Katie Consamus), who, in addition to wanting to retain power, is revenging the sacrifice of their daughter by the King as a gesture to the gods who then provided wind for Agamemnon’s war fleet. The murder of Agamemnon is revenged by his son, Orestes, aided by his sister, Electra (Natalie Hegg). For this matricide Orestes is overwhelmed with guilt and flees from the avenging spirit, the Furies, to the temple of Athena. There, the goddess hears the case presented by Orestes, who pleads justification, and the Furies, who plead for revenge. Athena and a jury of twelve men, unseen, find in favor of Orestes.
To this ancient story, Mr. Jackson layers a tale of Messenger #1 (J.C. Ernst), who has been at war with Agamemnon and is only happy to be back on Greek soil, anticipating reunion with his love, a woman who has, in the intervening ten years, hidden her female identity to become Messenger #3 (Emily Kitchens). As Messenger #3, her instinct is to tell truth to power, in this case to Electra, and #3 is executed as the play concludes. Messenger #2 (Jordan Kaplan) is an opportunist who’s loyal to himself and sees as a welcome perch his position as a royal messenger. He nonetheless has some loyalty to Messengers #1 and #3; unfortunately, when Electra tells #2 to tell the Executioner to kill #3 and he does, her lover, #1, is driven to murder #2.
Throughout this drama, as we move through the story of The Oresteia, the messengers come and go, express love, comradeship, fear, anger and hope, even as their rulers are oblivious to the personal lives and opinions of their servants. These characters don’t have names; they’re seen as slightly more than slaves whose identity is irrelevant. The ensemble acting is so fine that our sympathy lies with them, all fully developed, all compelling.
Messenger #1 is a tragedy in itself. #3 dies because she dares, in her pride, to speak honestly and fairly to Electra who at first is receptive, but later vengeful. #1 remains with sorrowful knowledge and blood on his hands. He sees that the future is fully one of murder following upon murder upon murder.
The staging is a bare black box, hatched with white diagonals which intersect (but are they also diverging?). The impact is realism, aided strongly by carefully created costumes (Heather Carey), evocative, yet unobtrusive lighting (Remy M. Leelike), and sound (Randall Benichak) which comes and goes with appropriate effect. The direction by Hondo Weiss-Richmond is clean, clear and imaginative. The movement consultant is the talented Kristin Calabria.
Mr. Jackson’s dialogue is a careful and clever mix of what falls on the ear as classical, and yet there’s often contemporary language. The effect is frequently and appropriately humorous or sober. Nothing said is out of place; we are drawn into this new drama which has strong classical chops, of course aided by its classical root.
As you consider seeing this play – and you should go – it’s perhaps important to remember that our word democracy comes to us from the Greek: “demos,” the people; and “craci”, the rule of. Our system of trial by jury finds its rudimentary roots in Athena’s court of justice. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely better than most legal systems across the globe. Further, it’s of interest that Messenger #2, in particular, amplifies the messages he carries to the general public, certainly his very own fake news, the impact of which we are all too keenly aware of in our current political climate. So there’s much here to consider in this intellectually and physically muscular production.
MESSENGER #1, A NEW ANCIENT GREEK TRAGEDY – written by Mark Jackson and directed by Hondo Weiss-Richmond
WITH: J.C. Ernst (Messenger #1), Jordan Kaplan (Messenger #2), Emily Kitchens (Messenger #3), Dan Morrison (Agamemnon, Orestes, Executioner), Natalie Hegg (Iphigenia/Trojan Maiden/Electra/Furies) and Katie Consamus (Trojan Maiden/Clytemnestra/Furies/Athena)
Heather Olmstead (Stage Manager), Ghazal Hassani (Scenic Director), Heather Carey (Costume Designer), Remy M. Leelike (Lighting Designer), Randall Benichak (Sound Designer), Sacha Spitzer (Technical Director), Kristin Calabria (Movement Consultant), Patricia Lynn (Artistic Director)
The Hunger & Thirst Theatre is produced by Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts services organization at The Paradise Factory, 64 East 4th Street, New York, NY. For tickets and more information, visit www.hungerandthirsttheatre.com. March 3-18, 2017; running time approximately two hours without intermission.