Duke Performances, this time along with Duke’s Department of Theater Studies, has brought another intriguing and illuminating theatrical work from the far ends of the earth to the Reynolds Theater stage. The South African troupe of The Farber Foundry — home theater of playwright and artistic director Yael Farber — is presenting Farber’s reworking of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy. The show repeats on the 20th.
Inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission work, and the choices made post-Apartheid by South Africans, against retributive violence, Farber has written a new ending for the blood-soaked Greek tragedy. She imagines giving peace a chance. In her play, Orestes returns from exile to kill his mother, Klytemnestra, to avenge her murder 17 years earlier of his father, Agamemnon — but he doesn’t. Farber’s work argues against the idea of inexorable Fate leading us helplessly on in one long blood feud. She does not deny the moral dilemma — one must do something when one’s mother murders one’s father — but reminds us that dilemma is all about choice.
Farber sets some of her action in the manner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission encounters: the injured and the perpetrator of the injury, one on one, face to face, across a scarred table under flickering fluorescent lights, telling each other the truth as best they can. The survivor tells of loss and pain; the killer tells of the act. Through the strictly human process of telling and listening, both retake some humanity from the ravening wolves within. Elektra (black) confronts her mother with her wrongs; Klytemnestra (white) describes how she killed the man who had fathered and killed her children. More clearly and directly than any of the thousands of column inches of reportage, MoLoRa makes you feel the radical power of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings.
Although I thought there were some issues of pacing and timing, particularly in the first third of the piece, following a kind of prologue of waiting, MoLoRa is a brilliant theater work. It is highly formal, ritualistic, and extremely tightly choreographed, every verbal, visual, musical and kinetic choice loaded to carrying capacity with reference, meaning and metaphor. Particularly powerful, and crucial to the work and indeed to its creation, is the Chorus of Xhosa singers and musicians. (For their amazing story, see Byron Woods’ interview with Farber in the Independent Weekly [link inactive 7/10].) From deep in the Transkei, these traditional musicians play several resonating instruments, and practice what is called in English “split-tone” singing. The sounds, while not particularly loud, get in your bones, and form an unusual counterpoint to the speeches of the forceful actors.
Any version of the Oresteia is hard on a person, and this one will flood many Americans with shame — Farber has her Klytemnestra torture her Elektra with near-drowning, and by putting a bag over her head, clear references to the U.S.’s post-9/11 campaign of blood vengeance. But it offers a breath of hope, a hope I haven’t felt in many years, that there is another way.
Program repeats tonight only. Seats were still available as of Friday night. See our theater calendar for details, or call Duke Box Office, 919-684-4444.