Tragedy in the family: 'Agamemnon'

Special to The Times

Aeschylus would appreciate the irony. His ancient Greek tragedy "Agamemnon," the story of a disastrous war in the Middle East, now plays at the Getty Villa, a palace of classical culture funded by an oil baron's wealth. The Villa's breathtaking outdoor amphitheater, with its imposing elegance and imperial vibe, makes it an ideal venue to consider the spoils of hubris. And Stephen Wadsworth's striking if declamatory production, anchored by star turns from Tyne Daly and Delroy Lindo, certainly offers a dose of power politics.

"Agamemnon" is only one chapter in the House of Atreus' grisly saga, which includes murder, cannibalism, incest and, in this play, the Trojan War. Intent on defending the family honor after his brother's wife, Helen, is abducted by Paris, Agamemnon (Lindo) assembles his army for an attack on Troy. But the goddess Artemis opposes the war and turns the wind against the king's ships. They wait. And wait. Agamemnon feels he must act, so he strikes a deal with the deity: If she will send favorable winds, he will sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia (Kathryne Dora Brown). The goddess agrees, and the girl is slain -- unleashing the war and the vengeance of his wife, Clytaemnestra (Daly).

Agamemnon's act may seem unthinkable, but his ruthless bargain represents any leader's willingness to send his country's sons and daughters into harm's way. "Agamemnon" telescopes the corrosive effects of a 10-year war into a single event: the homecoming of a victorious general.

The action unfolds in Argos, where royals and attendants move restlessly across Thomas Lynch's set. News of the Greek victory has spread, and everyone waits to see what Agamemnon's return will bring. After a decade of neglect, the city has suffered, and the people are gripped by malaise. Clytaemnestra, however, keeps her own counsel, even when her husband shows up with the royal concubine Cassandra (Francesca Faridany) in tow. Her poise deceives -- this queen's grief will have blood, no matter the cost.

The ever vital Daly, hair cropped short, paces the stage in magisterial robes, her signature directness giving this ancient text a disarming immediacy. Her speech to Agamemnon about the life of a woman waiting for her husband to return from war is the evening's most affecting, resonant moment. Lindo, apparently experiencing vocal strain on opening night, offers an intense, regal presence, and is arresting in his short scenes with Daly.

There's a terrific moment when Clytaemnestra invites Agamemnon to step from his victory chariot onto a sacred ritual carpet. Even the warrior Agamemnon balks, aware of the sacrilege. Clytaemnestra, a faint smile: "Where's the glory," she asks, "without a little gall?" It's a wonderful standoff, emblematic of Aeschylus' ability to mesh character, religion, politics and theatricality in a single gesture.

The late Robert Fagles' adaptation, created in collaboration with Wadsworth, moves seamlessly from the poetic to the colloquial, never losing Aeschylus' fierce, measured intelligence. Fagles makes certain interpretive choices, most notably adding daughters Electra and Iphigenia to the action. This foregrounds the familial price of the Atreus curse but can be confusing since Iphigenia is dead when the play begins.

There's also a strained quality that runs through Wadsworth's production. The cast often assaults the audience with the text, instead of merely speaking to us. Intensity is not a matter of volume (as is evident in Mark Deakins' fine turn as the Herald). So too, the final tableau feels overdone, lurching awkwardly into Grand Guignol. Distracting rather than cathartic, it pulls us out of the play's arguments and works against the more effective design choices; Rachel Myers' fluid, earth-toned costuming and Bruno Louchouarn's eerie, percussive score are particularly strong.

Aeschylus, a war veteran from a well-to-do family, experienced extreme privilege and horror in his lifetime, and "Agamemnon" is the anguished expression of a man watching his homeland self-destruct. The Greeks, for all their love of the arts, were fundamentally an imperialist culture. They believed in the efficacy of war. And, eventually, they were conquered.

"Agamemnon." Fleischman Theater, the Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Ends Sept. 27. $38. (310) 440-7300 or Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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