- Title: Orestes
- Playwright: Rick Roberts
- Director: Richard Rose
- Actors: Cliff Cardinal, Krystin Pellerin, Richard Clarkin
- Company: Tarragon Theatre, tarragontheatre.com
- Year: Continues to Feb. 14
It makes sense that, in trying to birth a new online form of theatre during this pandemic, artists might look back at those who prototyped the old IRL form of theatre: the ancient Greeks.
Orestes, a digital production live-streaming nightly via Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, is a modern adaptation of that much retold myth about a certain son of the House of Atreus who killed his mom after she killed his dad after all the killing of the Trojan War.
Playwright/screenwriter Rick Roberts’s script is based directly on Euripides’ morally murky play also called Orestes, set in the immediate aftermath of the title character’s act of matricide.
Euripides wrote it, his last tragedy before retirement, about half a century after Aeschylus capped off his better-known trilogy on the same subject, The Oresteia, which has a happy-ish ending as all that familial bloodshed leads to the establishment of a legal justice system in Athens, an enlightened alternative to cycles of revenge.
Written at a darker time in Athenian history, one of endless war, Euripides’s Orestes is decidedly lacking in Aeschylean optimism. The poet Anne Carson, who translated it in 2006, calls it “his last statement to the Athenians – and a wild, heartless, unconstruable [sic] statement it is.”
In Roberts’s equally difficult-to-construe adaptation, Orestes (Cliff Cardinal), an online influencer of great renown, has been let off for killing his mother Clytemnestra – but has been banned from the internet as a condition of release.
“Banished from all platforms!” exclaims Electra (Krystin Pellerin), his sister, making it sound like a fate worse than death.
Electra wants her popular uncle Menelaus (Richard Clarkin) to plead Orestes’ case so he can upload once more – and also tries to enlist the aunt she hates, Helen (Lisa Ryder), formerly of Troy, to the cause.
Through its title character has been deplatformed, director Richard Rose’s production of Orestes takes place entirely in cyberspace.
The form of the show is, at its most basic level, a video-conference call between characters. Logging on to a custom interface, the audience watches, for instance, Electra and Helen’s heads in boxes, chatting to each other.
A chorus of four appears in their own line of boxes at the bottom of the screen and also reacts to the story in real time in a chat room that the audience can join as well.
The video and streaming design by Frank Donato goes well beyond Zoom, however. Those boxes where the actors appear (in front of theatrically flickering backgrounds) move around and can do tricks (such as shrink or get swallowed), while animated overlays (think Instagram filters) occasionally augment the actors’ performances.
In one effective scene, unnervingly acted by Cardinal, Orestes, battling his madness, appears to unzip his face from bottom to top. His visage then reforms itself only to multiply like wizard Mickey’s reproducing brooms in Fantasia. (The skeuopoios who made the masks for actors in ancient Athens would surely be jealous of this more advanced tech.)
In addition to the spoken dialogue, Orestes features a lot of written text visible on screen, scrolling by in a font that suggests a hacking. These words and phrases, also written by Roberts, free associate based on what characters say. (“We’re so post-truth now I’m not even sure I’ve got the pronunciation right,” a chorus member says, then words such as “Post Malone” and “QAnon” appear.)
Images, videos and memes also fly by, glimpsable for mere moments, Fight Club-style. It’s all too much to fully absorb, purposeful information overload. The overall effect is like streaming a play reading that’s constantly being Zoom-bombed by the Furies, the goddesses of revenge who make Orestes go crazy.
Is this taking Greek tragedy to overly immersive extremes, to actually drive the audience a little mad? I haven’t even mentioned yet the choose-your-own adventure aspect of Orestes that allows audience members to click on characters and follow them into breakout rooms.
That feels less like an innovation per se than an evolution of a technique Rose pioneered in Necessary Angel’s legendary 1981 production of Tamara, in which you could literally follow characters from room to room in a house. (A salient bit of theatrical trivia: Rose, who is ending his 20-year tenure as artistic director of Tarragon Theatre with Orestes, launched Necessary Angel in 1978 with a production of The Oresteia.)
The price of Roberts and Rose’s enthusiastic embrace of innovation in Orestes, their attempts to create something original rather than a diluted version of something shuttered, is that their busy, bravura project still feels very much in beta.
But the gimmicks intrigued me or entertained me nevertheless – and it was fun, for instance, to see the legendary stage actor David Fox come out of retirement and tangle with a screen in a cameo as Orestes’ cantankerous grandfather.
It was basics like plot that left me baffled. I didn’t understand why Roberts began his play with Orestes already exonerated – or why he watered down the motive for his murder of his mother to her filming a sex tape that leaked online.
As for Roberts’s writing itself, his indirect ultra-dense style makes even the basics of the plot confusing – and while his dialogue is riddled with topical references, I couldn’t riddle out what he actually had to say about politics and (anti)social media. I dug the geekiness, but the rest was #AllGreekToMe.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)
Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.