Directed by Kate Bosher
University of Toronto
September 15, 16, and 17, 1994.
Reviewed by Aara Suksi,
Department of Classical Studies,
University of Toronto,
There is a triangle of sunken lawn on the grounds of Victoria College at the University of Toronto. It is enclosed on two sides by the high stone walls of Emmanuel College, and on the long third side by a low stone retaining wall. A border of shrubs, birch, and rowan trees softens the edges of the building, and in the center of the garden at the apex of the triangle is a life-size sculpture of a female crucifix. The larger area beyond the stone terrace is enclosed by academic buildings and a set of tennis courts.
Kate Bosher, an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, had the insight to recognize the enormous potential of this setting for the staging of an outdoor dramatic performance. Her choice of play was an ambitious one - Euripides' Orestes - but the dedication and industry of a large group of people, along with a few strokes of directorial genius and some notable acting talent resulted in a successfully provocative and entertaining production, enjoyed by audiences under a large moon September 15, 16, and 17.
Full advantage was taken of the setting already in place. The massive college walls already provided an impression of the imposing majesty of Agamemnon's palace, while the female crucifix among the trees was a constant reminder of Clytemnaestra's ghost. A rough circle of truncated white pillars around a small raised platform gave vague definition to the acting area, but the dramatic action frequently spilled over this boundary.
Entrances and exits, from all directions around and through the audience area, were handled particularly brilliantly. The audience awaited in patience as they watched the aged Tyndareus (Scott Moore) approach, his cane tapping along a paved path. Menelaus (Jen MacKenzie) arrived in military pomp from another direction on higher ground. Pylades, shirtless and in Doc Martins, sprinted onstage along the building walls, for a spectacular entrance embodying a show of strength to contrast with Orestes' weakness. Best of all was the entrance of Apollo (Chris Borst), who arrived in tennis whites, accompanied by Helen (Peggy Ferguson), racket in hand, and straight from the tennis courts whence the thwack of ball against racket had punctuated the entire performance. Apollo, his golden locks wreathed in a sweat band, lightly juggled his tennis ball from hand to hand as he laid out his plans for the futures of the human characters on the verge of death or murder, with playful nonchalance. This touch beautifully underscored the clash of the chaotic nightmare of human passions in the play with the ordered and unreal recreational detachment of Apollo's will.
It was obvious that the troupe had put many hours of hard work and rehearsal into the production. The lines of Arrowsmith's translation were flawlessly committed to memory. Timing and movement was carefully thought and and gracefuly executed. Make-up, costumes, and lighting were all professionally handled. Two flautists, Katherine Anderson and Kim Morris, provided an original and enchanting, though unobtrusive, accompaniment to lyric scenes.
The Orestes is a difficult play to interpret. Euripides fills the stage with a great number of conflicting perspectives on the traditional myth, but deliberately exposes them all as unsatisfactory. Orestes' heroic status as his father's avenger is undermined by his tendency to madness, his malleability in the hands of stronger characters like Electra and Pylades, and his bloodthirsty misogyny. Electra's pathetic appeal as orphaned virgin condemned to die is destroyed by her savage treatment of Hermione and by her manipulation of the psychologically crumpled Orestes. Tyndareus, an apparent voice of cold justice against an endless cycle of violence, is made suspect by his own thirst for Orestes' blood. The trial scene reported by the messenger is a chaos of partisan self-interest. The most polished rhetoric is used to express the maddest notions. The final deus ex machina makes a mockery of reverence for divine will.
If, then, the performance seemed to suffer from directorial confusion at times, it is perhaps really the playwright who has disoriented us with the confusion of tones. The single-man chorus (Chris Corbett) exemplified this confusion best, with his shifts from solemn grief to the grinning foolishness of a court clown, and then to savage glee at the prospect of Helen's murder.
Electra, too, must shift from despairing grief to incestuous rapture to criminal calculation. To manage these shifts without total absurdity is a difficult enough task, without the addition of the purse-flinging farce of her hostility to Pylades out of preference for her brother, which in this production was played for laughs.
For acting talent, special mention must be made of Andrew Hodge, whose Orestes was a terrifying composition of raging madness, twitching passivity, and weak overboldness. The Phrygian slave, played by Anne McDougall, played a scene which could be merely pathetic, or even merely comic, with great sensitivity to the lyric beauty of the text, combined with a graphic and gripping mime of all the roles in the action she reported. Her performance well deserved the spontaneous applause at her exit. Hermione, a one- dimensional character, is not a difficult role, but Wendie Sumeraj played it with special simplicity and grace. The bored nonchalance of Chris Borst's Apollo raised provocative questions about Euripides' attitude towards traditional mythology.
Kate Bosher and her friends, without the prodding or support of any formal institution, and without hope of profit, came together to realize an artistic vision. When that realization results in a valuable production of an ancient Greek play, I say bravo.
Aara Suksi is a second-year graduate student in the department of classical studies at the University of Toronto.