STAGE REVIEW : A Wildly Uneven 'Orestes' at Mandell Weiss Theatre

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

"There are one and a half tons of scenery hanging above your head," states a note in the program for "Orestes" at the Mandell Weiss Theatre.

Now, we've always known that the theater should be a place of danger, but this may be the first time that such a literal spin was placed on that idea.

There are also 1 1/2 tons of obvious symbolism in this reinvention of the Euripidian play about the dysfunctional House of Atreus, as adapted by Charles Mee and directed by Robert Woodruff.

The landscape, by designer Vincent Mountain, is something out of the late Tadeusz Kantor's bleakest visions: A hospital ward from hell, where the walls are bombed out and where beds without mattresses are a rusting collection of springs.

Disheveled mental patients mingle with the bloodied, the maimed and the haggard. Nurses and patients are equally deranged as they roll gurneys across the stage or slam doors or sweep aside the stage-wide shower curtains that form the boundaries of this asylum. Music, voices and noise blare at us through microphones in a semi-concerted, operatic cacophony.

Behind the shower curtains is the rubble of an apocalyptic world with upright piano and beach chairs. An enormous sign creates a ceiling. Its message, in huge letters: "WE ARE NOT IN DECLINE."

That is the environment of this "Orestes," lit with appropriate degrees of murkiness, backlighting and spotlighting by John Martin. Kay Peebles' costumes are an apt array of rags and tatters with the occasional sequined top over a hospital gown or, in the case of the mad Electra (Kim C. Walsh), Orestes' goad and moral accomplice, even something that looks like regular evening attire.

Woodruff's message about the murder of Clytemnestra by Orestes (Josh Sebers), as punishment for her murder of his and Electra's father Agamemnon, is nothing if not double-barreled. Assaultive comes to mind. So does simplistic, as in without shading or nuances and, in this case, curiously, without emotion. The production, which closes Sunday, is reminiscent of nothing so much as the throbbing, arrhythmic excesses of another iconoclast, Reza Abdoh.

And just as wildly uneven.

This "Orestes" begins with an autopsy report on Clytemnestra (the murder is over with, in this version) and long speeches about facial care and the nature of pain. Mee doesn't lack a sense of humor in some of his assessments ("A certain need for position, a certain homicidal rage runs in this family . . . "), but most of the writing is nothing if not a transparent veneer plastered over barely acknowledged codes of ancient morality.

The sense of ritual doom, of Old Testament retribution for an unspeakable crime, are sacrificed on a much shallower altar. Mee and Woodruff choose to make trendier points about political rectitude (a memorable monologue by Paul Gutrecht), dysfunctionality and, of course, the subject du jour as proclaimed in the sign over our heads: America's skidding decline.

So be it. But it is a narrow choice when stacked against the original play, in which Euripides concerned himself with far more complex events. The House of Atreus is in theatrical vogue these days for good reason: It does exemplify much of what's wrong with our world. The Guthrie Theatre of Minneapolis is about to embark on a three-play series that also includes Aeschylus' "Iphigenia in Aulis." And the Paris-based Theatre du Soleil is into a four-play series that consists of "Aulis" and the entire Oresteia.

But the results in Paris (which may come to Los Angeles later this year) form an intricate inlay of human emotion. The rivers of blood run a lot deeper. This Clytemnestra is a woman betrayed by her husband's ritual sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, who in time seizes the opportunity to avenge it. She is not, as depicted here, a mere wanton involved in a routine crime.

Woodruff and Mee give us the sound and fury of discord in concrete form, but little of its meaning and none of its passion.

Their "Orestes" (developed in a workshop at the Mark Taper Forum and tried out earlier this year at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.) is crammed with effect, too much of it for its own sake.

We have rain, fire, a life-size doll on roller skates as Hermione, a cross-gender Helen of Troy (Bruce Ladd), a one-armed Menelaus (Archer White) who makes stumbling references to arms (as in dis armed) and, at the end, a televised child as the oracular Apollo.

If it is an oblique reference to the Christian "And a little child shall lead them," it is the capstone to a noisy, diffracted, whirring but facile reconstruction of a deeper and richer play that would speak volumes to us with a little less help.

"Orestes," Mandell Weiss Theatre, UC San Diego campus at Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla. Tonight, 8 p.m. Sunday 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $12; (619) 534-4574. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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