For the first ten grueling minutes of Night (Thyestes 2.0), Kaylin Lee Clinton, dressed up like Athena, stands in front of a microphone and, in a cheekily professorial manner, lectures the audience on the genealogy of the House of Atreus. The lecture fits the genealogy into the form of a traditional five-act play, as a means of disseminating the bloody ancient facts to those whose memory of Seneca’s tragedy Thyestes is fuzzy, while also saying upfront, “Night (Thyestes 2.0) is going to be neither of these things: not Godfather Part III–style family drama nor a five-act play”:
Act three, scene one. / Pelops has two sons, / Atreus and Thyestes, / and, the two sons fight / over who will inherit the throne of Mycenae. / Atreus wins the kingdom / but Thyestes revenges himself by sleeping with Atreus’s wife. / Scene two. / Atreus exiles Thyestes. / But then, under the / pretense of making up, / Atreus invites his brother Thyestes home for dinner. / For the menu that night, / Atreus kills the sons of Thyestes, / cooks them, / and serves them to their father with a robust red wine.
Playwright Charles Mee is a master at mining ancient myths for the truths that transcend memory-torturing details and reimagining those truths for contemporary theatergoers. Fundamentally, the story of Atreus and Thyestes is about revenge, which scientific research has confirmed to be deliciously pleasurable, extremely costly, and ultimately unsatisfying, just as the ancients suspected. (Seneca, the Roman emperor Nero’s longtime advisor, knew something about the desire for revenge; he watched Nero murder his mother, and was eventually forced by the paranoid emperor to commit suicide.) Mee uses anonymous characters — “The Third Person,” “A Fourth Person” — who talk about how things are and have been and will be in generalities; no need to remember names like Pelops, Tantalus, Atreus, etc.
If Mee’s script strips the ancient story down to its bare bones, then the New Stage Theatre Company’s resourceful production layered onto those bones the flesh of the present. Huge video projections (designed by Laia Cabrera, Isabelle Duverger, and director Ildiko Nemeth) splashed horrific ISIS beheadings, Charlie Hebdo demonstrations, natural disasters, and other trending images of mass vengeance across the entire back wall of the stage.
The production employed a variety of strategies for provoking audience disgust. In one scene, Brian Linden, gruesomely costumed (by the talented Egle Paulauskaite) as a corpse dripping rotten flesh, crawled across the stage; in another, Linden, whose mute performance was consistently spooky, cooked scrambled eggs on a hot plate. But the actors, perhaps inevitably, struggled to match the intensity of the video projections — a bad sign for live theater. In the most compelling sequence, Markus Hirnigel replicated exactly the frenzied combat movements of a gun-wielding video game avatar; then suddenly we were hit with footage of actual ISIS killings (including close-ups of severed heads), which both contrasted the faux violence of computer games with the gory real thing and at the same time highlighted the virtuality of our YouTube-driven reality.
Chris Tanner played a sort of God-as-dirty-uncle role with transcendent sleaze, at one point puncturing dreams of human progress by pointing out that Styrofoam is the modern equivalent of ancient red pottery, and musing: “Whether anyone would think / 30,000 years from now / looking at the little bits of styrofoam / that there had once been a civilization as advanced as their own / is anybody’s guess.”
Charles Mee shows often oscillate between hyperkinetic frenzy and oceanic languor, as if to say that this is the rhythm of life, this to-and-fro, and for all we tell ourselves that life follows a logical progression, it’s really more of a cycle. Director Ildiko Nemeth captured this oscillating quality, albeit unevenly; the kinetic bits were always engaging, at times breathtaking, but the slow parts tended to drag along awkwardly. Beth Dodye Bass’s Edith Massey impersonation was cringeworthy, and Jeanne Lauren Smith’s performance was stiff, while Cathrine Correa and Sofia O.C. successfully channeled Isadora Duncan’s fluidly ritualistic movement.
If Anne Carson is the great literary updater of the Classics, then Charles Mee is the great theatrical updater. The New Stage Theatre Company’s production of Night (Thyestes 2.0) was a full-throated homage to Mee’s inimitable dramaturgy, with enough nice new notes that we left hoping they’ll take on the companion piece, Day (Daphnis and Chloe 2.0).
The New Stage Theatre Company’s production of Night (Thyestes 2.0) ran at Theater for the New City (155 First Ave, East Village, Manhattan) from April 24 through May 10.