The rarity of Seneca onstage is enough to make any fully mounted production of Thyestes an important one, particularly to scholars of Roman drama. For Thyestes to appear at Chicago's Court Theatre, which Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout recently referred to as "the most consistently excellent theater company in America," only heightened the sense of occasion. Adding three of the most accomplished female theatre practitioners of the twentieth century—translator Caryl Churchill, director JoAnne Akalaitis, and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton—seemed to promise a brilliant evening of theatre. Although this was an important production with some truly sublime moments, it was also a rather unsatisfying one, leaving me with the same regret that Atreus expresses about his revenge near the end of the play: "Even this is too little for me" (40).
Akalaitis staged Atreus, played manically by Mick Weber, as a sort of stand-in for Seneca's most famous student, Nero; yet despite this interesting choice, the production never approached the frenzy of overwhelming emotion that one might expect from it. Akalaitis's bold and innovative interpretation was also alienating and cold, lacking the epic grandeur that one would expect from a production of Roman tragedy. The shortcomings of this production must lie, at least partly, with Seneca, which leads one to [End Page 312] ponder just what contemporary directors are to do with "classics" that fail to hold the stage. While the Court's production suffered from the inherent flaws of the original text, the creative team attempted to solve many problems in staging this mediocre tragedy, incorporating characters as onstage witnesses, a dynamic chorus, and disturbing video projections, as well as visceral, sometimes unsettling, staging and design elements.
Akalaitis's direction did provide some unique and thrilling moments. One brilliant decision was her inclusion of the Ghost of Tantalus as an onstage witness throughout the performance. Lance Stuart Baker skillfully enacted Tantalus's suffering, helplessly watching his descendants participate in their blood feud. The Fury/Minister, played with eerie menace by Wandachristine, joined Tantalus in serving as a witness to and instigator of the events in the myth. The presence of these two onstage allowed other characters to occasionally deliver their lines in Seneca's original Latin, with the witnesses acting as translators for the audience. This addition to Churchill's sharp translation worked to make the language even more alienating for the audience, but also instantly comprehensible. Hence Akalaitis embraced the distance of the myth, while also striving to translate it into an accessible context for the audience.
Akalaitis's efforts toward this goal continued in her choices for staging the Chorus and incorporating projected video images. The remarkable Elizabeth Laidlaw and child actor Scott Baity Jr. portrayed the Chorus. They spoke, chanted, sang, and gestured their odes in an understated and highly understandable manner. The video montage began pre-show, with footage of Thyestes and his children spending time together in a local park. Every so often, the director juxtaposed these blissful images with pictures of raw meat, providing a glimpse of the children's future. These images gave Thyestes' sons a larger part in the drama, but they seemed somewhat extraneous to the aesthetic established in the rest of the play. Near the climax of the play Akalaitis also added macabre images of Atreus in the kitchen working on his "feast" for Thyestes. These images were disturbing, but they detracted from the work of the actors onstage.
The Messenger's extended monologue describing the murder and dismembering of the children by Atreus was a particularly effective moment. Wilson Cain III shone in this role, artfully conveying the sheer terror and brutality of Atreus's actions, while James Krag's Thyestes sat there the whole time, drunk and gorging on the feast, slowly tearing apart chunks of meat with his bare hands and slurping heavily on the juices. This supremely unsettling moment had even the sophisticated audience members at the Court squirming in their seats, writhing in a kind of cathartic reaction to the horror of Atreus...