Fun with Greeks: Orestes, “a live online mythic adventure” from Tarragon Theatre. A review

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Home Sweet Homepage.”

In a new and witty Orestes, premiering in a livestream production by Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, the House of Atreus, world’s most famous dysfunctional family is online with you (hey, just like your own family). And they’re airing their dirty laundry.

For this “Iive online mythic adventure” the veteran actor/director Rick Roberts has re-imagined the Greek tragedy for the age of screen interfaces. And director Richard Rose and video/ streaming designer Frank Donato has created a colourful and (dare one say) highly entertaining world for characters to watch each other, plot, interact across platforms. They suddenly appear and disappear as disembodied heads in other vividly coloured backgrounds, and shimmer into pixels. Video calls and Zoom captures freeze and return to motion; configurations change.

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In an uncanny way (as Roberts points out in his playwright’s note in the program) the conventions of Greek theatre are made for the digital world, with its Greek chorus of “followers” and so-called “friends,” and Likes and Unsubscribes, its particular forms of voyeurism, and conspiratorial break-out rooms.

As a large-cast online production (as opposed to a filmed production), it’s one of the most ambitiously inventive theatrical infiltrations of multi-screen technology I’ve seen yet. And it’s fun, if that isn’t a blasphemy in Greek tragedy circles.

The title hero (the charismatic Cliff Cardinal), an internet star with millions of followers, is screwed up by guilt and grief in the aftermath of killing his mom Clytemnestra (who as you may recall arranged for the death of her war hero hubby Agamemnon). Orestes has just been exonerated of murder. BUT — here’s the rub — he’s been “de-platformed,” evicted from all his social media platforms. “Banned from Twitter, banned from TikTok, banned from Instagram…” the list goes on in the incantation of his sister Electra (Krystin Pellerin, in a powerful performance). In short, “a sentence worse than death.”

Electra, mostly seen in grainy close-ups and not a model of emotional equilibrium herself, mounts a risky campaign to restore him. “If I put him back online there is no turning back…. Already people are flooding the site.”  

The reinventions of the characters for this very post-Trojan War world are witty and sharp. In Richard Clarkin’s excellent performance Menelaus, who waves the Family First flag, is the ultimate political operative, a cunning and smooth self-server. With its echoes of Mark Antony’s virtuoso funeral oration in Julius Caesar, his speech about his nephew Orestes starts with protestations of familial affection and ends with a death sentence.

Richard Clarkin (centre) in Orestes, Tarragon Theatre. Screen shot.

Menelaus’s bombshell wife Helen (Lisa Ryder) — Helen of Troy, for whom the endless war was fought — is the ultimate glamour  celeb, a creature of the virtual world and, as Electra points out acidly, “always camera-ready.” Helen’s daughter Hermione (Eleanor Guy) won’t even answer her calls. Any breath of criticism and Helen says “I blame the media.”

David Fox as the fierce old family patriarch Tyndareus gives his offspring, including Menelaus, a withering review in a memorable diatribe against the younger generations.

To me the interactive part — you click on a character to hear a supplementary monologue — seems a little grafted on, in truth. For one thing I couldn’t get it to work without stopping to re-enter my password. But the show is lively and absorbing. And it reminds us of one of the few bright sides of this strange and isolating moment in history where we’re stuck. We get to see what bright ideas are happening on the other side of the country.

“The real was never an option for him,” says Electra of her troubled bro. I think we all know how that feels.

Orestes is live-streamed through Feb. 14. Tickets and schedule at tarragon.com.

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