After two-and-a-half millennia, Agamemnon still has the power to thrill. The University of Pittsburgh Department of Theater Arts' new production modernizes Aeschylus' tragedy with a translation by British poet Ted Hughes (published posthumously in 1999) and visuals drawn from 20th-century wars and aesthetics. Indeed, it serves as a fitting tribute to the man memorialized in the play's intimate venue: the long-time Pitt design maven, Henry Heymann.
We all know some version of the story, right? The Trojan War, concluded offstage, is much discussed and leads to an elaborate and ultimately unpleasant homecoming for the title character, a warrior who paid a dear price for his victory. At first, as the apparent sole surviving Greek general (Odysseus et al. having had some trouble getting home), Agamemnon still owes big-time for his misleadingly good fortune.
Director Dennis Schebetta dips into the tale's various manifestations of madness early and often. His Clytemnestra (vividly portrayed by Melissa Italiano) can barely contain her murderous rages and thirst for vengeance, excited by the atrocities in Troy. Agamemnon, played with brio by Anand Nagraj, tries to sidestep and atone for his insanities with paeans to the gods. But his hubris is as great as his stature.
Agamemnon is less a mere play than a glorious pageant filled with poetry and grandeur. The heavy lifting of the former is capably handled by Dylan M. Meyers, Kevin McCarl and Amy Wooler as the chorus of elders. Mallory Fucella flashes passion and pain into her Cassandra.
But most memorable are the pulled-out stops on the design side. Rhianne Lowe's jagged, multi-textural set contains and augments the action in neutral, Modernist colors. Kendra Rai's costumes add serious color contrasts: homicidal red for Clytemnestra, poignant blue for doomed Cassandra. The former's second-act leather/vinyl/whatever ensemble is truly killer.
Seduction, revenge, sex, war, almost-unspeakable violence — you can't go wrong with that combination. At the same time beautiful and terrible (in the classic sense of "terror"), Agamemnon offers a welcome hot spot in a cold winter.