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The Oresteia Project

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Greek tragedy is not easy to enjoy -- especially when the story is a trilogy, the total run-time is three and a half hours, and each part is so surreal that you feel like you're walking through different wings of the Salvador Dali Museum, on LSD. So if you're going to take on the Oresteia Project, Carnegie Mellon Drama's gigantic production of the Aeschylus plays, don't take the challenge lightly. Because this Oresteia is sprawling, enthralling, and stretches the frontiers of the imagination -- a cycle staged with such visionary pizzazz that it could easily have been renamed the Schizophrenia.

Here is some practical advice for the fullest enjoyment of this mind-bending opus:

(1) See it in order. The trilogy is split into two nights (or afternoons), with the two-hour Agamemnon on one date and the Choephorae and Eumenides on the second date. The plot isn't terribly important -- parts two and three take place years after part one -- but it's good to know why Orestes is so pissed off, and why his mother warrants pity before her soul is taken, and why Aegisthus deserves to have his arm cut off with a hacksaw, and so on.

(2) Read the program notes. Each part is uniquely cast, so the Orestes of one play is not the Orestes of the next. Each part is also styled differently, with a fairly Grecian Agamemnon, a totally abstract Choephorae, and a multimedia Eumenides. The titular character of the Oresteia, the anti-heroic Orestes, doesn't even appear until the second play.

And the plot is fairly complex: Agamemnon returns victorious from the siege of Troy, but his wife, Klytemnestra, is having an affair with Agamemnon's cousin, and kills Agamemnon because he murdered their daughter. Orestes, their son, grows up despondent, until the Chorus commands him to kill Klytemnestra (his mother) and Aegisthus (his uncle/stepdad), which he does. As punishment, Orestes suffers the torment of the demonic Furies. Then there's an interrogation, a trial, a quiet love affair with Athena and a message from the afterlife; the revenge finally ends with a neat little moral. Sort of like an Aesop fable, with singing drag queens. 

(3) Don't expect it to make sense. Throughout this Oresteia, you will see samurai, wolf-people, graphic enemas, classic-movie parodies, and a woman dressed in severed body parts. Transvestite interrogators will sing in four-part harmony, sex-ed clips will play on a video-screen, voices will be warped by sound equipment -- all as if to ensure that you have the most bizarre experience of your life.

The plays' directors and associate directors (Matt Gray, Jed Allen Harris, J.A. Ball) have envisioned a world where anything can happen, and almost anything does. But there is method to their madness, and some performances are outstanding: As the first Klytemnestra, Michelle Wong uses her powerful voice and precise diction to great effect. Liz Fenning and her doppelganger, Kirsten Bracken, combine to create a fearsome Kassandra -- the beautiful seer whom Agamemnon has brought back from Troy. And, as Apollo, Matt Burns steals the entire production: The tall, skinny actor, dressed in an all-white suit and sporting hair cut into the shape of a predatory bird, is the much-needed comic force at the end of the cycle. His rock-star smile and cocky surfer-dude accent make him an effortless sun god. His rival is Susan Goodwillie, who, as Athena, is funny enough to have her own talk show. 

(4) Don't get too comfortable. Each play takes place in a different part of CMU's Purnell Center, and no two seats offer the same level of comfort.

But never mind the length, the weirdness, the self-indulgence and the migratory audience. The Oresteia is worth seeing, and rest assured, you will never see anything like it.

The Oresteia Project continues through Sat., April 28. Purnell Center, CMU campus, Oakland. 412-268-2407.

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