Orestes is displeased by the grave of his father. First, the soil in the mound that covers it is foreign—a disowned king like Agamemnon does not get Greek dirt over his corpse. Second, from high above, dust trickles down to build up on the mound. But Agamemnon’s death wasn’t a slow trickling into nonexistence. It was a fierce, unexpected stab that left him dead in an instant.
This mound that marks the tomb of Agamemnon is the marvelous centerpiece on the set of the first act of “The Libation Bearers,” a performance by the Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama Group, representing the efforts of the Barnard and Columbia classics departments, done entirely in ancient Greek with subtitles projected overhead. It runs through April 5 at the Minor Latham Playhouse.
“The Libation Bearers” is the latest ancient play performed by the drama group in its original language, an annual tradition that started in 1977. (Last year’s production of “Thyestes” was performed entirely in Latin.)
It was clear from the way the play was staged that the company understands that by now it cannot impress audiences on the novelty of a dead language. After a while, the ancient Greek doesn’t sound remarkably different from a modern European language, and the actors do not try to mimic the masked melodrama of the Athenian stage. This is contemporary drama in an alluring tongue.
Still, a classics department isn’t funded to put on theatrical productions, so there’s a gap between their passion for communicating the ancient texts and their abilities. The opportunity to hear what a Greek chorus would have sounded like to Aeschylus’ original audience is, as my Lit Hum teacher described it, “creepy,” but the singers can’t meet the demands of keeping up the cohesion required to sustain this tone throughout the play.
Amy Yamashiro—a member of the Washington Square Winds—however, does a wonderful job at playing the dreamlike but threatening score that accompanies the performance. The singers seem likewise intent on getting their notes right, but the songs don’t need staged perfection—the songs are howls from the heart. No doubt the thick consonants of ancient Greek hinder expression, but the actors play successfully with the language when they’re not singing. Why not when they are?
The acting lets the pulse of Aeschylus’ script pound into the audience. The monologues that provide the muscle of Greek tragedy are all executed well, particularly for Ridge Montes, CC ’13, who is a force in the role of Orestes. Montes is very aware of what he sees and feels and can still project both the courage and exhaustion of the character, even in the depths of Orestes’ despair.
Yet, there’s a weakness in the actors: They can’t communicate with each other. Montes is better at playing off of corpses than the living, and he and Kara Boehm, CC ’15, who plays Orestes’ sister, Electra, never find a specificity to their relationship. Yes, Electra feels conflicted between support for her brother and fear of his dedication to revenge, but the two never get to a deeper understanding of their bond, and other actors never really find an opportunity to interact with Orestes.
Part of the blame goes with the directors, classics department Ph.D. students Anna Conser and Simone Oppen, who separate the characters from each other, often putting them in a prison of individual spotlights where their responses come off like non-sequitur monologues.
Yet one glimmering performance shows the vitality of the drama. NYU classics graduate student Talia Varonos-Pavlopoulos, as Clytemnestra, responds acutely to her scene partners, adapting to what’s happening but then adding her own devilish personality into the fray. She doesn’t try to parrot contemporary domestic tensions to make her matriarchal role relatable. She is instead otherworldly, but fits perfectly into the mythological setting.
While the underwhelming parts of “The Libation Bearers” might seem to call for stuffing the play with the elements from the parts that work, this phalanx doesn’t need more spears, it needs sharper ones.
The final performance of “The Libation Bearers” is April 5 at 8 p.m. in Minor Latham Playhouse. Tickets are $5 with a CUID and $10 for nonstudents.