—Originally published February 6, 2017—
Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of Northwestern students who always go to see plays together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, the Girls saw the Wirtz Center’s stage premiere of Simon Scardifield’s “Agamemnon” adaptation. Let’s hear what they had to say on their way back from the theater…
As the lights slowly rose in the Josephine Louis Theatre, Gwen stared hard at the location on the ground where the naked, bleeding Sean Gundersen had laid not twenty seconds earlier, and which was now vacant. The darkness of the final blackout had seemed so sudden, and so total, that she had been unable to trace if any actors stayed onstage during the blackout, or whether Gundersen had been whisked offstage to don the requisite robe for modesty during his bow.
The lights finally reached the level they had begun at, dimly illuminating the clouds of fog and haze floating in from the stage’s exposed wings. Not an actor was in sight. Gwen raised an eyebrow. She had basically understood the play’s ending, even if the pace had dropped slightly after Cassandra’s death, and in tying it to the overall message she was gleaning from it…
The house lights faded on, and around her Gwen heard the muffled sounds of audience members slowly getting up, grabbing their coats, muttering to their partners. More distinctly, she heard Eleanor’s voice to her right say:
“Oh, so that — that’s just it, then?”
“I guess they’re not doing a curtain call for this show,” Gwen said, a tinge of regret in her voice. She had wanted to praise the performers, especially so many making their Wirtz Center debuts in the production. Unvoiced, she considered the lingering question she harbored at every Department show, concerning why the MFA-directed projects contained so many more bios with the phrase “Wirtz debut” than the faculty-directed productions did.
“Well, then,” Dania said. She stood up, holding her coat while putting on her scarf. As she did, she lingered for a moment, staring at the red water in the bathtub onstage and adjusting the scarf at her neck.
“Shall we go?” Eleanor asked.
“Let’s,” Gwen agreed.
The girls walked slowly out of the theatre — passing behind elderly subscribers and into the lobby. As they exited, Dania glanced at the lobby display: fifteen pieces of art, one created by each cast member, hanging from the walls and ceiling. Most featured tearing or distressing. All featured blood.
The wind was biting cold as they began walking through campus.
“Well,” Gwen said. “Who wants to go first?”
“I mean,” Dania said, turning her palms skyward, “what’s there to really say about it?”
Gwen stared incredulously. “What’s there not to–”
“Okay, yes, yes,” Dania clarified. “What’s there not to say, right. It’s full of interpretations and everything.”
“I enjoyed it,” Eleanor said. Immediately, she squinted into the middle distance. “Okay, I thought it was interesting.”
“The choices made were smart,” Gwen said. “The casting was certainly very excellently done. Everyone well suited to their part.”
“I thought so, too,” Eleanor said. “Especially whats-her-name, the girl from Big Love…”
“Oh, Mimi Reninga? Clytemnestra?” Gwen stated.
“‘Stab Men With Knives Girl,’ yeah,” Eleanor said. “Her. She did a really nice job. The scene with her and the little shepherd boy was kind of weirdly sweet, as much as it was terrifying.”
“I did like that scene,” Dania said. “Even if it was sort of, ‘why am I watching this murderous queen just talking with some boy for a while.’”
“The chorus was used excellently,” Gwen said, her eyes lighting up. “That’s the adaptation, but the director did a fantastic job keeping the focus on them and shifting the perspective of who was telling the story at any point.”
“Wait, which ones were the chorus?” Dania asked. “The bro-ish dudes with the helmets?”
“No, it’s the trio we’re following for most of the play,” Gwen clarified. “The fisherman, the shepherd, and the farmhand.”
“That was the chorus?” Eleanor asked, forcefully. “I was definitely waiting for the chorus to show up the whole time. I figured it was the soldiers or something…that was the chorus?”
“But they were, like, the leads.”
“I actually love that about this adaptation,” Gwen said. “Rather than make it all about how cool Agamemnon is, and how powerful he is, and surprise the audience when everyone turns on him, we focus on the people who already know what he did and how the public feel about what he did. It’s basically storytelling, starting from halfway through the story. Giving the shepherd kid all the necessary context along with the audience.”
“Really talky, you know,” Dania added. “Lots of talking about stuff that doesn’t happen onstage.”
“Well, didn’t you say it was a radio play first?” Eleanor asked Gwen.
“Right,” Gwen said. “This is the first time it’s been staged. And hell, if you think this was a lot of talking without showing, you’ll be surprised by the original play.”
“No doubt,” Dania shrugged.
“But I really enjoyed the production. It’s a new angle on Agamemnon by, I suppose, literally telling it from another angle.”
“Well, if we’re talking about ‘another angle,’ I might have something to add,” Dania said, reaching up to massage her shoulders. “Don’t know why entire scenes were taking place behind us.”
“I know, right?” Eleanor agreed. “The one time we buy tickets earlier in advance and get into the front section…”
“Wasn’t it just that one scene with Agamemnon,” Gwen said. “Were there more scenes in the audience?”
“Well, the soldiers came in there, right past me,” Eleanor said. “And I think Cassandra ran through at one point, out of nowhere.”
“I mean, I also thought it was…” Eleanor began. “Well, I already said ‘interesting,’ didn’t I?”
“What was ‘interesting?’” Gwen asked.
“I’m not sure,” Eleanor said. “I really liked the costume design, I’ll say that right away.”
“Oh, I didn’t,” Dania said.
“What?” Eleanor asked. “You mean you didn’t like that rad-ass dress Clytemnestra was wearing in the second act? She looked hot.”
“Okay, sure,” Dania said. “But it’s like: we start with this fisherman and the little boy, and they’re dressed in basically, I guess, depression-era clothing? Or something from Stalinist Russia.”
“I also got Stalinist Russia, I don’t know why.”
“The moustache?” Gwen suggested. Eleanor sighed with understanding.
“Anyway, it’s kind of unspecified, 20th century war-torn look. But then we get to the palace, and those two women in black and white look like they’re directly from the modern day.”
“The aides were dressed slightly different than the rest, true,” Gwen said. “Especially compared to the guard and the soldiers.”
“Plus the giant boat,” Dania said. “I know you’re going to say, ‘it’s not supposed to literally be inside a giant boat,’ but like…why build a giant boat?”
“Well, ships are a big symbol in the show overall,” Eleanor said. “So that works. And then having it all rotting and falling apart from the beginning, that’s like, foreshadowing, right? Because Agamemnon already did the thing before the play started.”
“Something like that,” Gwen said. “I’d add that it was looming over the whole thing, like the carnage at Troy was on everyone’s minds. It chokes Greece, like Cassandra said.”
“Did Cassandra say that?” Eleanor asked. “I thought it was the fidgeting blanket lady.”
“Oh, Calchas?” Gwen said. “Maybe it was her. Um, him.”
“Yeah, I wondered why they didn’t just change the pronouns for her,” Eleanor said. “It was clear it’s a female actress, why not add another female character to the play?”
“That wasn’t her real hair, right?” Dania asked. “It looked filthy.”
“Oh, no,” Gwen said. “Definitely a wig.”
“Everyone had a wig, for some reason,” Eleanor added. “And most of them I could tell were wigs.”
“Especially the weird-looking rat-tail thing that Agamemnon has at the end,” Dania said. “What was up with that?”
“He’s been away at war for ten years,” Gwen explained.
“Well, he looked like a caveman,” Dania said.
“Oh, you know who I liked?” Eleanor said, changing the subject. “I like Meat Eating Guard.”
“Oh, Chris Porter?” Gwen said, with a smile.
“Sure, that one.”
“It was a clever preoccupation to give him, trying to eat while also telling about the feast,” Gwen said. “Although, if someone told me that the whole production was organized in order to craft an excuse for Chris Porter to eat meat onstage, I wouldn’t doubt it for any less than a few seconds.”
“I also liked that you could see everyone entering and exiting,” Eleanor said. “Don’t know why, but for some reason, it was a nice effect. And being able to see people behind the boat for a moment before they actually walked into the center space added some tension to moments, especially the ones with Iphigenia.”
“It made the space feel more open,” Gwen added. “More like part of a city rather than an isolated location where everything happens. But if it needs to, it can still be a bathroom, a barn…”
“Oh, yeah, the barn,” Dania said. “And that cow.”
“What cow?” Gwen said, before stopping and adding, “oh, right…”
“Um, it’s a heifer,” Eleanor said, with the mocking insistence of Nicholas Tassopolous’s Shepherd.
“No, it’s a bell on a string,” Dania said.
“…I actually do kind of agree with you,” Gwen said. “I don’t know what I’d prefer they do, obviously they can’t bring an actual cow onstage, but bloodlessly slicing a bell down to the ground doesn’t really have the impact I think they wanted it to have.”
“Especially when there’s so much blood later on with Agamemnon — and also, hello, have we not discussed the random nudity in the final scene yet?”
“I completely thought he was just going to get into the tub with the boxers still on,” Eleanor said. “I mean, that’s what she did in Big Love last year. But nope.”
“Props to Sean for doing it,” Gwen said.
“Although I will say: oh my God his scars looked fake,” Eleanor added.
“They were so fake!” Dania said, laughing. “I wasn’t going to say anything, but then the Queen’s all like, ‘look at your scars,’ and one of them was in the process of peeling off his body.”
“He’s about to get into a tub of water, Dania,” Gwen defended. “They’re probably going to start peeling anyway.”
“Whatever, it might be petty,” Dania said. “Doesn’t mean I didn’t notice it.”
“Tech problems aside,” Eleanor said, “I thought it was fine overall. Certainly put together well, I’ll give it that.”
“Absolutely,” Gwen said. “It gets a little slow at the end, but by then all the action is over, so that makes sense. It’s always good when a Greek tragedy doesn’t make it feel like everything is just inexorably happening because some prophecy demands it. When there’s choice involved, even if fate is forcing their hand to choose one way.”
Gwen halted for a moment in thought. “If that makes any sense.”
“Well, they keep talking about choice in the play,” Eleanor said. “All about how Agamemnon makes a choice, the shepherd and fisherman make a choice to go wake up Clytemnestra, and so on.”
“Right,” Gwen continued. “And how this is just the start of a line of other tragedies, even if Clytemnestra and Aegisthus don’t realize it.”
“I want to know what that shepherd does next,” Dania said. “I want a prequel about his relationship with Grandpa Fisherman.”
“Don’t they meet in the first scene?” Eleanor asked.
“I remember some line where the boy says it’s his first day there,” Gwen agreed.
“Well,” Dania said. “I want a sequel about them, then. The Shepherd, the Fisherman, and the Farmhand.”
“I mean, that’s kind of what this is,” Eleanor said. “A story about the people, watching their country fall into ruin. Yelling up at the people in power and saying ‘you’re not good people! We want someone good in charge!’”
The words floated through the frigid January air. The girls each individually thought about the world they were walking through, the battles raging somewhere off in the night. In Dania’s mind specifically, an image stood out: the Farmhand quietly insisting that the great Agamemnon, adored by the crowd he can see from his carriage, stay sitting and not come out to greet the public. A woman of color insisting that the people held the power at that moment. The people would tell his story. The people would watch him fall.
AGAMEMNON runs until February 5 in the Josephine Louis Theater at Northwestern University (20 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston, IL 60201). Tickets and more information are available at https://www.communication.northwestern.edu/wirtz/agamemnon.