First rehearsals are always an exciting day at Shakespeare Theatre Company, but the anticipation was at a fever pitch at the first gathering of the Oresteia cast, creative team and staff last week. The long-awaited, world-premiere production is the last for Artistic Director Michael Kahn, who has been at the helm of STC for over 30 years. There was an air of celebration in the room as everyone toasted Michael and what he’s accomplished at STC.
For Michael, this production has been a long time coming—he’s wanted to direct The Oresteia since reading it as an undergraduate—and he feels the play has even more resonance than ever. “There is a continual violence in this family from the beginning. To resolve it at the end of the play, does this have to continue? Do we have to kill someone because they killed someone else?” he asked. “We are trapped in a similar cycle of violence and anger today, all over the world.”
Playwright Ellen McLaughlin, who has been working on the adaptation for over three years, agrees. She loves adapting ancient Greek plays because they tackle—but don’t necessarily answer—the hardest questions at the heart of civilization. “These are issues that we have to consider and we are always going to be struggling with,” she said to the group. “What do we do about what we are at our worst? What do we do about the people who commit crimes that are unspeakable? How do we go on as a culture, how do we go on as a people, once we’ve seen the part of ourselves that makes us morally unrecognizable?”
For this landmark production, Michael has assembled an all-female design team of artists, some veterans of beloved productions at STC and some who are new to our stage. Susan Hilferty will helm both the scenic and costume design, and she has created a world that exudes brutality. She described the set as “volcanic…a landscape that has been burned, in which we hope something will grow, but we can’t imagine that it will grow.” Centered on stage will be the building where the action takes place: the House of Atreus. “I think of it as a reliquary, a casket, an oven, a thing which will explode at any moment,” she said.
The costumes will use jewel-toned Indian silks, and the Chorus, who are the servants of the house, will share a distinctive style. Susan explained, “I think of the Chorus as having been there forever, they’ve been there since the beginning of time, and they’ll be there till the end of time. They are the witnesses. They are not guilt free, they are participants.” Their costumes will include head wraps, long shirts and shoes that are designed to move on the set’s uneven terrain.
Movement Director Jennifer Archibald shared that she was inspired by the Martha Graham technique for the movement that will be integral to the Chorus. “There’s a series in Graham work where you ‘plea’ into the ground. Those contractions can build so much life and emotion through you physically,” Jennifer said. “So, I have a mission to make the beings on stage as ferocious as possible, while also playing with softness and extremes from one to the next.”
The play jumps between time and space, which Composer Kamala Sankaram will help the audience navigate with different textures. “When we’re in the past with Iphigenia, there are more voices, but when we jump forward, there’s more extended string techniques, somewhere in between organic and non-organic. Things you have heard in horror movies,” she explained. Because much of the play’s action is triggered by the death of Iphigenia, Kamala has written a string quartet with a theme just for her. “The music that happens through the rest of the play will be based on that theme so that everything unfolds from Iphigenia.”
With so many incredible talents supporting Michael Kahn’s vision, his final production promises to be an unmissable event.
The Oresteia begins April 30 at Sidney Harman Hall.