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The House


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Society for New Things

Most people know the story of Aeschylus's Oresteia, the Greek tragedies about infidelity, infanticide, revenge, kidnapping, war, fratricide, and matricide. But that won't help much in understanding or appreciating the Society for New Things' version of the story, a quasi-contemporary production titled The House.

Performed on a minimalist stage with few props and a cast that often plays indistinguishable characters, The House is shockingly misogynistic and embarrassingly awful.

In the Aeschylus tale the torment begins when Atreus and Thyestes, the two sons of the king of Argos, fight over their father's throne. Later Thyestes seduces Atreus's wife, which causes Atreus to seek revenge by feeding the unwitting Thyestes his own children. Thyestes lays a curse on the house of Argos, which comes to fruition during the reign of Atreus' son Agamemnon.

We know the story from this point forth as the Trojan War, ten years in which Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphegenia to the gods in exchange for sailing wind, enslaves the doomed prophet Cassandra, and eventually dies at the hands of his wife, Klytemnestra, and Thyestes' son Aegisthus.

The bloodletting continues when Agamemnon's son, Orestes, is goaded by Apollo to seek revenge by killing his mother and her lover. He accomplishes this with the help of his sister Electra, and is then driven mad by the Furies, who think there's been one too many killings.

Finally, at Apollo's behest, Athena hears the case of the Furies against Orestes. She restores Orestes to his throne and his sanity, and pacifies the Furies with a place of honor in her home city.

Obviously women don't fare particularly well in the original, but what SFNT has done to the women characters is vicious. For starters, all the women play at least two roles. Even the pivotal Klytemnestra, played by Lauren Campedelli, is indistinguishable from Campedelli's other character, one of the Furies. Some of the male actors also play multiple roles, but they're only small roles. And David Gutfreund plays only Orestes, and the formidable Frank Kentra plays only Agamemnon--both with some respect for the development of their characters.

There's also a surprising bit of exploitation in a scene featuring Beatriz Cervantes as Cassandra. As Cervantes goes about prophesying, men whistle and taunt her. Worse, Cervantes responds to their catcalls with an inexplicable and not too subtle striptease, finally exposing her breasts. Yet later, in a scene in which the Furies are bathing Orestes, when nudity would make infinitely more sense, the director makes a point of keeping Gutfreund covered.

None of this, however, compares to the venom spewed by Joel Tatom, who plays Apollo (as a weird combination of Sly Stallone and Foghorn Leghorn) and a soldier, and Walter Breitzke, who plays a soldier and a friend to Orestes. "Women are evil. Women are lawless," says Tatom/ Apollo. Later, when exhorting Orestes to kill his mother, he goes into a frenzy, shouting over and over, "I want you to kill that toxic bitch!"

Amazingly, Breitzke's character outdoes him. "I wish I could kill a woman," he tells Orestes. "First, I'd stab her in the eyes, then in the back, then here." And with that, he goes into his own Manson-like stabbing fever, plunging his imaginary blade into the womb of Cynthia Rhoads (playing God knows who, since it was impossible to distinguish her many roles). At this the two males gleefully celebrate.

Given that none of this is in the original story and that SFNT claims to have developed this piece as a group, I can only assume that these are the personal contributions of Tatom and Breitzke. I can't help but wonder what the hell was going on with the women--and the other men--in the cast when this was being "developed." It's unconscionable that this woman hatred--so out of proportion to the needs of the original story and so out of place in the rest of the adaptation--was given such free rein. What was the point, other than to let Tatom and Breitzke vent their spleens?

As if this weren't bad enough, the story is told in the broadest of strokes, perhaps in the hope that the audience will know it already; its characters are, after all, archetypes. Moreover, the symbolism is appallingly amateurish. For example, when the Furies anticipate the murders, they bathe Orestes in blood. In another scene, the Furies swab mud all over each other while earnestly chanting, "I feed the earth; the earth feeds me." In yet another tableau, Electra or Iphegenia (who knows?) hovers over a childish Orestes and hums "Hush little baby, don't say a word."

On the evening I went, Tatom, playing Apollo descending from the skies, got stuck in midair when a pulley refused to work. For the longest time no one moved, leaving Tatom dangling above the stage long after he'd run through his lines. He resorted to calling out to Orestes with macho exhortations until he was finally freed from his perch by a stagehand. Unfortunately, that was the highlight of the show.

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