by Lynn on February 8, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Runs live on line until Feb. 14.

Written by Rick Roberts

Directed by Richard Rose

Set and Costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Video and Stream Designer and Operator, Frank Donato

Web Interface by toasterlab-Ian Garrett

Lighting Interface Designer, Joey Martin

Cast: Cliff Cardinal

Richard Clarkin

Bren Eastcott

David Fox

Eleanor Guy

Jeff Ho

Krystin Pellerin

Antony Perpuse

Lisa Ryder

Gabriella Sundar Singh

A wild, fierce, go-for-broke production of the Greek myth reworked to modern on-line times, that is endlessly inventive, sometimes over the top but encapsulates the world we live in.

Bless theatre folks. They find a way to adapt to every difficulty and manage to produce a play and production that is full of heart and guts.

Note: Orestes by Rick Roberts was supposed to have opened the Tarragon 2020-21 season in the theatre, but this little pandemic put a crimp in their plans. So Roberts re-worked the script and director Richard Rose and his crew adapted to the challenging times to present the production on-line and live every night.

Background: One must reference the source material before I deal with this updating of the story. Aeschylus wrote of Orestes and the bloody revenge brought by him and his family. First his father, Agamemnon, sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia (and Orestes’ sister) to the gods in exchange for calm seas that would allow Agamemnon and his troops to sail to Sparta and fight for the return of Helen, Agamemnon’s sister-in-law. (she’d gone off with her lover, Paris). To get revenge for the death of her daughter, Clytemnestra (Agamemnon’s wife) and her lover, Aegisthus, kill Agamemnon when he returns from war. After this, Orestes returns home to avenge his father’s death and kills his mother and her lover. It’s Greek tragedy; revenge is big in these stories.

The Story. Playwright Rick Roberts has re-imagined the story for our on-line-twitter-snap-chat-tik-tok-Instagram-texting-world. Orestes has a huge on-line presence with 40 million Instagram followers. His hold on his followers and his power are undeniable. He has been tried for his mother’s brutal murder (23 stabs) and is acquitted. But a punishment is still levied by his ruling uncle, Menelaus. Orestes is banished from all platforms and forced to live his life off-line. It is a fate worse than death—it’s cancellation. Menelaus is the consummate politician protecting his interests, his image and controlling his perceived enemies, in this case, Orestes.

The Production. The cast rehearsed and performed separately in their own homes, adhering to strict safety protocols. Green screens were used to create various backgrounds: the vast palace of Menelaus (Richard Clarkin) and Helen (played with sultry ennui by Lisa Ryder) (she returns home after 10 years); a packed amphitheater of citizens who listen to Menelaus’ final speech; Orestes’ (Cliff Cardinal) prison cell. This allowed Frank Donato, the Video and Stream Designer to create multiple scenes that flowed seamlessly from one to another. The constant ‘distractions’ reflected in the on-line world are nicely created here.

Each character is ‘wired’, self-absorbed and deals with the challenges of the times with varying degrees of success. As Orestes, Cliff Cardinal reveals a man-child who feels he did right by killing his mother with no regrets or a sense that there are consequences. He curls in the fetal position on his cell floor, crying, lost, angry and frustrated not to be connected to his followers. His sister Electra, played by Krystin Pellerin as compassionate and caring, tries to comfort him and plans ways to take him out of this situation.

Richard Clarkin plays Menelaus as the consummate politician: polished, commanding with charm and manipulation and always looking out for himself, but suggesting his major focus is the good of the people. Clarkin presents an impressive image; slicked-back hair, well-fitting jacket with a line of medals pinned across the left side of his chest, proof to his followers what he has done for them in war.  And the medals ‘clink’ as he moves. That detail of the clinking medals is masterful in keeping Menelaus’ honours in his followers’ eyes and ears.

Rick Roberts has added a layer of conscience in the person of Tyndareus (a masterful David Fox), Clytemnestra’s raging father. Tyndareus has the measure of both his grandson, Orestes, and his son-in-law, Menelaus and none of it is good. Orestes is a petulant child with no responsibility and Menelaus is an unscrupulous politician. Neither has a sense of the consequences of what they have done, or the responsibilities in accepting the consequences. Tyndareus rages at them both in a speech full of invective, moral outrage and in dazzling language that goes on to such an extent I thought I might be listening to a playwright riffing on his own facility with language, rather than the character’s. This is not to deny Rick Roberts’ wonderful ability with language, nuance and putting the audience in the world of the play.

Roberts gives Menelaus a final speech that is so mesmerizing in its mysteries of whether or not he will forgive his nephew, that the audience is lulled along with every twist and turn until the final stunning moment. And of course, Clarkin knows how to play the subtleties beautifully.

The audience is invited to engage in the play as well. There are moments in the production when the audience is invited to click on the ‘square’ of one of four characters and follow them for a bit of the play (Shades of Tamara another Richard Rose production from decades ago when the audience followed character(s) in person from room to room in a large mansion and got fragments of the play that way). In spite of clicking on the screen where instructed, I never got to follow the character of my choice. I chalk that up to technical glitches. (yes I checked with the theatre). No big deal really. I was given a character to follow in any case.

The audience could also engage in the live chat before, during and after the production. To me live chatting on line during the production is like talking during the show. It means one can’t be paying attention to the play and are more interested in ones’ own thoughts than what is going on on ‘stage’, ‘screen’ etc. I hate the whole idea of live chat, but that’s just me.  

There is also a chorus of misfits who revere Orestes, each with his/her/their own agendas, with clear examples of Rick Roberts’ winking humour (one character is named MandLbrot, another is named CASMR@NDRA).

Comment. I certainly appreciate the effort and guts it takes to produce an endeavor as complex as Orestes, shifting from an in-person production to one on-line. Director Richard Rose and his tech staff expertly establish the world of on-line: cell phones always in hand, always checked for new messages, texts, Instagram hits, interactions that look disjointed and distant because of course they are, the fawning mob in the amphitheatre waving and shifting, who react rather than think first—all beautifully established.

But there is the other world that informs the production and that is the live world the theatre-going audience brings with it when they engage with on-line theatre productions. Through no fault of the actors, the characters often seem flat because one does not get the multi-dimensions of an actor on a stage connecting with the audience in the same space. Acting with a partner in another square separated by location does not have the same immediacy as watching two actors in the same space interacting with each other. There are those wonderful moments when the actor bursts through the screen and grabs you. That can’t be denied.

I am grateful to this production for its many positive aspects in bringing a new twist to an ancient story of revenge. But at the end of the day it reminds me of how much I miss the ‘original’ way of watching a play, in the same room with other people, breathing at the same time. And how technology can’t really replace watching a play live in a theatre.

Produced by Tarragon Theatre.

Plays until Feb. 14, on line.

For tickets go to:

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Peter Rand February 9, 2021 at 1:17 pm

Hi Lynn! Great review. But while I agree that “technology can’t really replace watching a play live in a theatre”…… I was left totally “excited”/inspired by the novelty and unexploited possibilities of what might be produced by such a unique medium – a medium that lies somewhere between “live and spontaneous in a theatre” and “flat and unchanging/constant on a screen”. A truly novel medium???
I imagined
– how spontaneous/different it might be each night
– how many more paying guests there might be each night – at home and worldwide!!!
– how elaborate each actor’s filming circumstances might become/their space/even room to room/many green-screens etc etc
– how many different ways of audience participation ???
– an amazing use of the internet???
Anyway maybe these possibilities will fade with the pandemic but I just saw it as a totally novel medium…