May 2009, Volume 13, Number 5

Cultural Spotlight

Timeless tragedy revamped for a new generation

Orestes poster

Students at MDC’s Kendall Campus recently performed a famed Greek tragedy for South Florida audiences.

Orestes follows members of the ill-fated house of Atreus as they deal with the consequences of violence and the nature of war.

The title character commits matricide – at the behest of the god Apollo, although of his own volition – but Orestes’ crime is only the latest in a long line of crimes against and within this family. In dealing with the aftermath resulting from this murder, the play touches on innocence, guilt, honor and shame.

“The play contains a bloodline curse – Orestes murders his mother Clytemnestra to avenge the death of his father, Agamemnon, at her hands – but the story is ultimately about an end to violence,” said drama professor Deborah Mello, who directs Orestes.

There is also a dichotomy between the two generations in the family, the siblings of the murdered parents, Helen and Menelaus, and the children, Orestes and Electra. Some characters explain or justify the violence while others accept the violence.

These names should be familiar to those who studied Greek mythology.

“In order to fully understand the narrative arc of the play, we studied some mythology. The students were completely fascinated by it,” Mello said. “They even found some interesting Biblical allusions in the play that I had never realized.”

Professor Brad Beckman was given the opportunity to adapt the classic drama. His goal was to ensure that the story was relevant today.

“My primary task was to discover how the play resonates for today’s audience,” Beckman said. “Orestes is about honor but the play also deals with the intersection between what’s ‘right’ in the sense of family and what’s ‘right’ in the sense of country or state. These kinds of issues are essential for all humans, for all societies.”

Some of the more unique choices Beckman made involved the chorus – a traditional element used to lyrically advance the plot throughout the course of the play. He and Mello chose to have the chorus use a “spoken word” cadence to connect better to modern audiences. Also, the chorus in the play is traditionally female but the chorus in this production featured both male and female students.

Mello found that using music during rehearsals helped get students connected to the “rhythm” of the piece. She used artists like M.I.A. to inspire actors to feel the “heart beat” of the play.

“When I was a student, we performed Orestes during the Vietnam War and used the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want to set the tone,” Mello said. “The play is universal because the theme is war and violence; unfortunately the theme still applies today.”

— Katherine Joss

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