One thing about Thyestes: I can’t tell you the ending. It’s not because I have to preserve the mystery of the plot. It’s because the ending of Thyestes isn’t there, at least in part. Perhaps we can say it’s not been written yet. Possibly, that’s a mercy in the end.
We tend to forget that, at the height of the struggle, the original cast in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s didn’t have the luxury of flipping ahead to the end of the book to see how it all worked out.
But a host of sources have claimed that’s exactly what a host of religious far right connections within the Bush administration are doing with our foreign policy. Sources cite an apocalyptic twist on manifest destiny–a Fundamentalist interpretation of Book of Revelation, giving America an immediate role in events that will usher in the End of Time–as a driving force behind our recent acts in the Middle East.
Such religious certainties contrast with the real doubts that fueled the social struggles of the ’60s. The ends of peace and social justice were anything but assured. Because they were, the principals fought harder.
In Thyestes, playwright Caryl Churchill largely rejects certain comforts. This Raleigh Ensemble Players production follows suit, celebrating what might be called the benefits of doubt.
Churchill’s sudden close at Thyestes’ end is mirrored by an equally abrupt departure of actors and audience from the performance space. Both come moments after Thyestes’ climax, when Atreus confronts his brother, the title character, with the details of his gruesome revenge.
Those familiar with Greek literature know the wheels of vengeance will turn for generations beyond this moment. The intricacies of payback, the cause-and-effect lockstep–and the fundamental lack of mercy at a number of points–insures that blood will spill for decades.
That knowledge is denied us, here. Though the Furies’ ragged breathing and sensuous contortions signal an unspeakable satiation as old crimes are repaid with compound interest, they immediately grow still when the brothers leave the room. The gods hold their breath, with reason: At this moment, no one knows what happens next.
It makes Thyestes an in-between story for an in-between time. In probing the foundation of the Atrean house, and then abandoning us there, director C. Glen Matthews ironically confronts us with the present tense, and our own condition.
Churchill’s graphic adaptation of Seneca is a tonic for a time of evasion and doubletalk. In its preface, Tantalus, the warring brothers’ father, embraces his eternal torments as they’re taken from him. He tells his Underworld keepers: “If there’s anything you can add to these punishments É get hold of it. There’s a mob spawned from me who’ll do things so much worse that I’ll look innocent.”
In Rus Hames’ mouth the delicious line, “If there’s any space available in hell, we’ll take it,” seems said by someone negotiating a real-estate deal. But no amount of rhetoric spares Tantalus from witnessing his crime’s aftermath as it is visited upon his surviving progeny.
In Matthew’s environmental theater approach, a twisted labyrinth of revenge is rendered in 3-D, as the audience walks through the Artspace building to witness the unfolding acts.
Such transits sometimes had us out of earshot or view of some admittedly imaginative sets: The rails on Artspace’s second floor became the bridge Thyestes’ ship as he returned to Argos. Providing crowd control also split the focus of that most unaccommodating of trios, the Furies.
Elsewhere, the disorder we confronted suggested a familiar place: a city where atrocity was about to begin. The passion and the incoherence of anti-war protests were represented in choral pleas for peace.
Bridgette Harron’s video crew and their live footage evoked the rawer Iraqi war coverage of foreign networks. Chorus/commentator Betsy Henderson’s summary video judgments was at times as ham-handed as those we’ve recently seen on TV.
But that discloses only a portion of the situation Thyestes describes. Atreus’ best idea for a man-made horror to trump his father’s creation and scare the gods still underwhelms when compared with recent events. As Atreus, a young Sean Brosnahan’s petulant announcement of murderous intents recalled the Elvis Costello dictum that there’s no such thing as an original sin.
David Henderson plays the title role as a penitent who’s sinned and survived to give his sons sage advice about power. Too bad his character forgets his own advice.
In Seneca’s world, what you’ve learned counts for little once you’ve committed a crime. Throughout, the Furies’ logic seems forever fixed on justice, never mercy.
If the ancient Greeks detail a civilization in process, their works also caution us in how far we haven’t come since then. Tantalus and Thyestes both learn late. Wrong follows wrong in unbroken line: exponential revenge, both then and now, often seems the ne plus ultra for redress.
In both times, a crisis of faith seems underway. With revenge achieved, Atreus’ proclaims, “I’m letting the gods go, I’ve got all my prayers.” Silently, we count the moments until the gods ruin him.
For what it’s worth, we’re still counting. Since the end of Thyestes comes where it does, we’re left to ask, has the relationship between cause and effect broken down? Are the gods dead or no longer intervening? Surely Atreus’ monstrous acts–and those of more recent vintage–scream for immediate retribution.
Yet none comes. The ending remains to be written. There, in fact, may never be an ending–an even more frightening possibility in some ways than the Chaos and Old Night which once terrified the gods.
But the absence of a close is also instructive, at least to modern viewers. Its possible message is political and metaphysical, and it can be summarized as follows: If you want a better ending than this, start writing it now.
“Inever set out to be the first at anything,” director Joseph Henderson notes during a rehearsal break at Walltown Children’s Theatre, a converted church building on Berkeley Street in Durham. “I only know I had never seen a piece of Hispanic theater or an audition notice for one anywhere around here.”
“What we do is look for a need, and then we try to fulfill it. I felt that, if we put up the signs, someone might come and audition for one.”
The result is Romeo y Julieta, and it’s a rarity in regional theater: a locally cast and directed Spanish-language production. Its performances this Friday in Reynolds Theater will be the first of such that this area has seen in over a decade, despite rapid and continued growth in Latino and Hispanic communities during the period.
It may surprise some to know that the region has previously played a notable role in Hispanic theater. Mexican playwright Josefina Niggli wrote a series of historical plays, including The Fair God, The Cry of Dolores, Aztecaas and Soldadera while a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill in the 1930s, and the Carolina Playmakers produced her play Singing Valley in 1938. Niggli joined the UNC faculty after graduation, before moving to Hollywood to write for film and television. The UNC Press published her collected Mexican Folk Plays in 1945.
Such accomplishments, though, remain a distant memory at best to a present-day theater community that has consistently snubbed the area’s fastest-growing demographic group. The overwhelming demand patrons demonstrated for choreographer Carlota Santana’s regional debut with Flamenco Vivo in 2001 and that company’s strong ticket sales since, remain a lesson lost on regional theater.
As a result, the area’s first modern-day Spanish theater production comes from a young children’s theater troupe with a track record for social activism and a shoestring budget.
“My sense is that, because of the language barrier, the theater arts may not be inclusive,” notes Dr. Norma Cantu, a University of Texas professor who convened a meeting on arts inclusivity for Latino and Hispanic populations for the Southern Arts Federation last month in Raleigh. “My perception is that the population growth largely occurred in the working classes, and these are not seen as a target audience by most theater companies.”
In rehearsal, Lucero Chavez and Jose Velasquez, students at Durham School for the Arts, lyrically negotiate the disaster of first love as the title characters. After that, a dynamic Rida Askar Perez-Salazar, a 12th grader at Jordan High, proves as pointed with his rapier as he is with his words. As Tybalt, his stinging curses arc through the air like the tip of his fencer’s foil, both ready and willing to do harm.
If a single scene can make a case for a production, this one does, conveying a lyrical and passionate intensity at once familiar and different, seen through the lens of a different culture.