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Killing the Messenger 

Wednesday, Mar 22 2000
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Ancient Greek writers were almost without exception male aristocrats, and the history they've left behind is as slanted as some of their medical advice. "Aristotle recommended that a woman start bearing children at 18, as wife to a man aged 37, for the charming reason that they would thus reach the end of their reproductive lives together," writes the British classicist Peter Jones. And: "Semen must be hot on delivery, so Aristotle did not recommend males with long penises that would cool the semen on its travels." Which leaves posterity nothing so much as an idea of the size of Aristotle's penis.

Mark Jackson's funny new play for Art Street, Messenger #1, reimagines Aeschylus' Oresteia from the point of view of three messengers who look like Depression-era laborers. Messenger #1 flatters power to keep his job; Messenger #2 seems less sycophantic but still kind of a wimp; and Messenger #3 is his girlfriend, a modern-minded anarchist who has to dress like a boy to keep her job. "On my messenger's journeys I've now seen the world for what it is, and it's not right," says #3. History is "bought and paid for -- and not by the likes of you and I." The concept owes something to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but the results are anything but derivative.

All three messengers speak slangily and act American, while Agamemnon and the rest of the royal family look like colorful statues. They wear gold satin robes, thick pale makeup, and behave like cartoons of themselves -- Clytemnestra the bitch, Electra the bratty princess, Orestes the spoiled proto-Hamlet, Agamemnon the pompous lord. The messengers dart back and forth to Roadrunner sound effects; there's something cartoonish about them, too. Art Street is a movement group, so most of what happens onstage is carefully choreographed, and some scenes from Aeschylus are recapped in precise and clever mime.

When Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War, his wife Clytemnestra cuts his throat and becomes sole ruler of Argos. (Her lover Aegisthus has been edited out.) The messengers are shocked by the power grab, but #1 sucks up and announces Agamemnon's death to the people of Argos as an unfortunate result of his war wounds. #1 introduces Clytemnestra as the city-state's new queen, and she steps out with a stern face, waving like Miss America. "That's the most heinous display I've ever seen," says #3.

It turns out Messenger #3 was a servant girl for Orestes and Electra. She helped raise them, and became a messenger only after Clytemnestra sent her children away to slave in Phocis. Loyally, then, #3 carries news of Agamemnon's death to Phocis. Her former charges don't recognize her, or even offer a tip. They return to Argos, where Electra convinces Orestes to slash the queen's throat; soon Messenger #1 announces him as the new king of Argos, though he's insane with grief. "I told 'em she was bad and you were good, so not to worry," says #1.

Telling the rest would spoil things, but let's just say #3 sees more injustice in the name of the House of Atreus than Aeschylus ever recorded. Beth Wilmurt plays her to near-perfection. She gets all the best lines, and her comic, plucky, Midwestern voice defines the show. "Helen didn't launch a thousand ships. Agamemnon launched a thousand ships," she rants at #2. "If Helen had been saggy and pear-shaped like a real woman ... Agamemnon wouldn't have been so proud."

Gillian Chadsey plays Electra with excellent energy, full of bratty princess-ishness, and Kevin Clarke is also strong as the spoiled, quivering Orestes (though he's overwrought as Agamemnon). Their funniest scene has Orestes and Electra laboring in a quarry (or something) and swearing with real Greek fervor about the queen. "Gold-digging hag. Penis-envying crock for spew! We are so fucking screwed!" shouts Electra. "I'm a princess, goddamn it -- a princess!" Karl Ramsey and David Babich are passable as the first two messengers, but Michelle Talgarow is good only as Clytemnestra. She becomes affected and unconvincing as Athena and the Furies.

Most assaults on the ancient canon as representing a conspiracy of Dead White Males make the mistake of either 1) having no sense of humor, or 2) forgetting that the very notions of justice that have pushed our civilization above that of ancient Greece -- abolitionism, feminism, civil rights, and so on -- have their very strong roots in Plato and all the rest. Messenger #1 commits neither sin. It cuts up Aeschylus to explore the class injustice and sexism behind the scenes of an Argive "Crime of the Century" (Clytemnestra's murder), and manages, by the finale, to put it all back together, leaving a litter of unrealized ideals. It's dark, damning, graceful, and funny as hell.

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