In tragedy, a god is the hardest part to play—because the gulf between the divine and mortal is both infinite and intimate. This strange distance is the essence of tragedy where, when we come too close to the divine—when we play the gods too well—we are destroyed.
No one died in the making of Glass Mind Theatre's production of first-time playwright Ann Turino's "The Pretties," an adaptation of Aeschylus' Oresteian trilogy, directed by Lynn Morton. And, despite the body count in Aeschylus' drama of the curse of the house of Atreus, no one really dies on stage either. There is a lot of killing, but the play never quite pulls the trigger on the murder to allow it to equal death. This decision pushes the play into the halfway state between existence and annihilation—like Achilles when Odysseus sees him in the Underworld, a mere shadow of himself, unable to remember and unable to forget. It is a brilliant place for drama to occupy—but also one full of pitfalls.
The basic story picks up a couple of generations into a miasmic pollution or inherited curse that began when Tantalus fed his son Pelops to the gods (I'm not going to worry about spoilers in a 2,000-year-old play). Later, Thyestes, the son of Pelops, ends up eating his own children after his brother Atreus chopped them up and cooked them. So Atreus' two kids are Menelaus, who married and was later cuckolded by Helen (later "of Troy"), and Agamemnon, who led the Greeks against the Trojans in an attempt to get her back. Anyway, you know some bad shit is going to happen here at Argos, Agamemnon's town. When he comes back his wife Clytemnestra, who has a new dude, kills him and Cassandra, the enslaved Trojan princess. Their other daughter Electra largely dithers, while the son Orestes, who has been in exile, returns and kills his mother. The furies haunt him, and Athena absolves him, turning the furies, who prosecuted blood murder and specifically matricide, into the Eumenides, or the titular "Pretties," and subdue the old, pre-Hellenic matriarchal forces with the paternal power of Zeus.
The Glass Mind play begins as Clytemnestra prepares for his return—but time and causality are as twisted in this production as in a Faulkner novel (and barely less incestuous) so it really begins as he is about to leave for Troy a decade earlier. The winds don't blow; the army can't leave. Everyone is getting rowdy.
The lack of wind is the result of another curse. Agamemnon unknowingly shot one of the goddess Artemis' deer. In order to repay her, he has to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. It is a horrible act, but all fore-ordained as we can tell when the young girl, played with attentive brilliance by Paris Brown, gives the goddess (Erin Boots) a little deer-like toy, made of sticks stitched together. It looked, in fact, a lot like those stick totems in the first season of "True Detective," to the point that, mixed with the skittery chronology, I half-expected some McConaugheyean oracle to proclaim that "time is a flat circle."
There is a sort of circular causality that comes with miasmic curses. As in the story of Oedipus, you're fucked no matter what you do. And this sacrifice is why the moment of Agamemnon's return is the perfect place to open the play. Clytemnestra has been left to stew about this slaughter for a decade—that psychological turmoil is represented by the furies, played with real fury by Trustina Fefe Sabah and a contorted Sarah Weissman.
And now Agamemnon brings back Cassandra, a daughter of Priam, the king of Troy, who is cursed: She knows the future but no one believes her. Ren Pepitone (who also plays two other roles) captures her mystical frustration beautifully—inhabiting her horrendous, famous scream (You should listen to Anne Carson's 'Cassandra Float Can' about the difficulty of translating Cassandra's Greek scream which is "untranslatable yet not meaningless. A scream conveys specific emotion and can make things happen"). Pepitone's Cassandra is admirably blurred, her edges blunted by time and assault.
And while I dig all this complexity, I couldn't help but wonder if people who didn't already know the story recounted above had any idea what was going on for half the play.
Greek tragedy is hard. It's so fucking serious but also stylized and it's impossible to know what to do. Even in ancient times, a small mistake could ruin you for centuries. The actor Hegelochus mispronounced the Greek word for calm so that it sounded like the Greek word for weasel and Aristophanes still made fun of him for it decades later. But all of the actors here play their roles with aplomb, as if they know what drives their characters, even when the audience doesn't.
A few of the choices, such as Dana Woodson as Agamemnon (with a giant fake cock), are inspired. Woodson seems taller, fiercer, and more divine than the other humans. And perfectly arrogant for all of this in a way that both reimagines and defines the character. And V Lee is a credible Clytemnestra—it is difficult to contain the fury of such a character, but especially in the scene where she disrobes for a ritual cleansing, we can feel her torment.
But Clytemnestra's grief is too unfocused. She is neither villainous nor sympathetic (rather than both). The furies, who compel her to murder, complicate, and confuse, rather than elucidate her anger, turning it now to sorrow, now to confusion, and now to rage. Like much of the writing in the play, her character comes across as a bit muddled.
Turiano's "Pretties" tries to capture the entire Oresteian trilogy in one play—which is too much (105 minutes really can be an excessive amount of time to sit in an uncomfortable folding chair in the Copycat). It simply tries to do too much and could have benefited from a narrower focus.
Because the overall conceit—about a tragic kinship between Iphigenia and Cassandra, two young women destroyed not only by history and their elders, but by the gods and fate, and destroyed, primarily, because they are loved—could make for a brilliant re-envisioning of the play. Had Turino brought this out more—focused more on Iphigenia and Cassandra, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, and the goddesses and less on Electra and Orestes, the traditional heroes of these plays—everything would have had more room to breathe and to sink in. With some editing, this could be an extraordinarily powerful play. A great one. As it is, it is only good.
If it didn't skirt so close to greatness, I wouldn't have been quite as disappointed. But I look forward to seeing a lot more writing from playwright Turiano.
The Glass Mind Theatre will perform "The Pretties" through Aug. 23 at the Copycat Building. For more information visit glassmindtheatre.com.