Muhlenberg production of 'Agamemnon' offers innovative take on Greek tragedy
Ted Hughes' translation breathes new life into an ancient story. His language remains among the most visceral and haunting of the modern stage.
The hardest part of directing a play that's a couple thousand years old isn't getting your audience to understand the play, says director Matthew Moore. The hard part is making sure they connect with it — and that means finding a way to cut its mythic characters down to human size.
Moore's production of Aeschylus' tragedy "Agamemnon" opens Nov. 19 at the Muhlenberg College Theatre & Dance Department, where he is a faculty member. He says that his first job as director has been to help a modern audience relate to an ancient tragedy, with its ancient characters and their ancient motivations.
"Ted Hughes has given us a beautiful, poetic, modern translation, so the language isn't a great challenge for the audience," Moore says. "The challenge comes from creating these larger-than-life characters on the stage, in a way that makes them and their crazy decisions seem not only real but compelling."
"Agamemnon" runs Nov. 19-23 on the college's Studio Theatre stage. Tickets and information are available at muhlenberg.edu/theatre and 484-664-3333.
Moore says his approach to creating an accessible "Agamemnon" has been highly collaborative — and highly improvisational, to an unusual degree for a theater production. The cast spent the entire first month of rehearsals doing improv and movement work, with guidance from movement consultant Susan Creitz, another Muhlenberg faculty member. Their objective was to find the physical reality of their characters before they started learning their lines.
"The first thing Matt ever said at rehearsal was, 'This text is a spell, and we are going to learn how to cast it,'" says Kate McMoran, who plays Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's vengeful spouse. "I don't think I could have even started to the scenes if I hadn't had the improv movement experience first."
"Agamemnon" tells a tale of revenge and murder set in the aftermath of the Trojan War. Ten years before, the Greek King Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to gain the necessary winds to sail to Troy. Now he returns victorious — but his fleet and kingdom have been decimated by the war, and the memory of his sacrifice looms large, particularly for his wife, Clytemnestra.
Feigning thankfulness for his safe return, Clytemnestra lures her husband into the bath, where she murders him to avenge her daughter. But justice proves elusive in this primal tale of revenge.
"I am interested in the practice of theater as a continued collaboration," Moore says. "It doesn't mean you come and collaborate with me on my vision. It means let's actually do the work of figuring out what this is together."
Part of the collaborative process for "Agamemnon" includes the contributions of senior Sean Skahill, who has composed a dark, edgy original score for the production. Skahill also composed music for last fall's "The Winter's Tale," but in a very different style. For "Agamemnon," he uses a looping station, an electronic device that loops and layers different sounds and instruments to create an improvisational soundscape.
"Matt keeps saying that the play is about the past repeating itself," Skahill says. "So the looping device really works nicely on a literary level. We keep hearing the past, layered over itself to create more and more complexity."
Muhlenberg College is a liberal arts college of 2,200 students in Allentown, Pa. The college offers Bachelor of Arts degrees in theatre and dance. The Princeton Review consistently ranks Muhlenberg's production program in the top 15 in the nation, and the Fiske Guide to Colleges lists both the theatre and dance programs among the top small college programs in the United States.
Performances of "Agamemnon" are Nov. 19-23: Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for students and for LVAIC faculty and staff. The performance is intended for mature audiences.