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Raleigh Ensemble Players artistic director C. Glen Matthews does not stay up at night trying to figure out new ways to give former U.S. Senator Jesse A. Helms (R-NC) a figurative heart attack — although it might seem so to Helms supporters and other cultural conservatives. So far, the eye-opening musical and two dramas comprising REP's 2002-2003 season have focused on the travails of a brassy transsexual German-American rock singer recovering from a gruesomely botched sex-change operation (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with text by John Cameron Mitchell and music and lyrics by Stephen Trask), the horrifying terrorist(?) bombing of an contemporary elementary-school classroom (Show and Tell by Anthony Clarvoe), and a turn-of-the-century French-Canadian teenage homosexual love triangle that ends in arson, murder, false imprisonment, and kidnapping (Lilies, written in French by Michel Marc Bouchard and translated by Linda Gaboriau).
Now comes Thyestes, contemporary British playwright Caryl Churchill's cheeky 1995 translation of an ancient Roman revenge-tragedy by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C.-A.D. 65). The thorny topics of Thyestes include the unnaturally intense sibling rivalry between the title character (David Henderson) and his brother, Atreus (Sean A. Brosnahan), whom their father, Pelops, ordered to share the kingship of Mycenae and its special symbol: the lamb with the fabled Golden Fleece. But Thyestes had other plans. He cuckolded Atreus and drove him into exile. Thyestes and his brother's wife, Aerope, kept the lamb with them... until Atreus turned the tables on them and drove Thyestes out.
Atreus exacted a monstrous vengeance on Thyestes by murdering and dismembering Thyestes' young sons (Brendan Szulik, Daniel Mizerk, and Keenan Szulik) and serving them to Thyestes limb by limb. So, add lust for power, incest, and cannibalism to REP's list of provocative topics; and break out the smelling salts for Senator Helms & Co.
"I ran across [Caryl] Churchill's translation of [Thyestes] in a Theatre Communications Group catalogue in 1996 or so," says Glen Matthews. "The language was fascinating! I had hoped to direct a production of it when I was teaching at William Carey College in Mississippi, but we were never able to make it happen. It's been on my 'to-do' list since that time."
Caryl Churchill is widely recognized as one of the most provocative contemporary playwrights. Her masterpieces include Cloud Nine (1979) and Top Girls (1982).
"Churchill's language is truly amazing," Matthews says. "It's succinct and efficient, yet filled with delicious, powerful imagery. The issue of sibling rivalry, which is at the center of the piece, is also incredibly interesting. Having grown up with two younger brothers, I feel like I've experienced all there is to experience when it comes to sibling interactions and dynamics. Somehow we survived it, and are closer now more than we ever were as children. Because of this, it is difficult for me to grasp how one could hate their sibling so much that they would commit the unthinkable in order to destroy them... difficult to fathom, but fascinating to explore. Can man's desire for power and control actually push him to destroy his own kin? I guess we need only look at the newspaper or turn on the television to find the answer to that question."
The plot of Thyestes begins in the middle of the ancient Greek myth that the play dramatizes. For those unfamiliar with the story, Caryl Churchill sums it up as follows: "Tantalus was a rich king, a son of Zeus, friends with the gods. One day when they came to visit he killed his young son Pelops and served him up for dinner. The gods punished him after his death by standing him in a stream while a tree dangled fruit near his mouth — when he tried to eat, the tree whisked the fruit away; when he tried to drink, the stream dried up. He was being tantalized. Pelops was brought back to life... [and] had two sons, Atreus and Thyestes, who were supposed to take turns ruling the country and keeping the symbol of power, a ram with a golden fleece."
Besides Henderson, Brosnahan, and the Szulik and Mizerk boys, the cast of Thyestes includes Rus Hames as the Ghost of Tantalus, Christine Rogers as Atreus' Minister, and SaRAH! Kocz as the Messenger. The Chorus includes Yolanda Batts, Rusty Beaman, Leslie Cloninger, Thaddaeus Edwards, Betsy Henderson, Barbette Hunter, Julya Mirro, Sam Mohar, Deb Royals, Karen Stallings, Carolyn Usanis, and Bobbi Vinson.
In staging Thyestes, Matthews says, the main directorial challenge is: "How do we tell this ancient story to a contemporary audience in a way that is accessible to everyone. That's the biggest challenge, as well as breaking down any barriers that might exist when it comes to both the artists' and the audience member's experiences with verse plays."
Director Glen Matthews' creative team for Thyestes includes set/props designer Bill Rodgers (making his REP debut!), costume designer Miyuki Su, media designer Bridget Harron, lighting designer Thomas Mauney, and assistant director and sound designer Heather Willcox. Matthews says the REP production staff relishes the challenges of staging this difficult drama.
"The production team is using two images/ideas to control and shape the telling of the story," claims Matthews. "We're playing with the idea of one being 'dipped into evil,' as one might dip their hands, feet, or body into water. The amount of dipping is determined by one's actions, how eagerly or how hesitantly one embraces the evil that surrounds them. We see this realized predominantly in the costume design."
Matthews says, "A second controlling image is that of a 'whirlwind of blood' — the effects of such a phenomenon on an individual or a community as it is predicted, as it approaches, as it hits, as it dissipates. This is realized throughout the production, specifically in our approach to staging. Our stage is the entirety of Artspace. The audience moves with the action through the space, whirled from one location and series of events to the next. The final moments find us braced in Gallery II for the play's horrific feast."
NOTE: Raleigh Ensemble Players warns Triangle theatergoers that Thyestes is a graphic play for mature audiences only, and that the audience will have to stand for portions of the performance. If you think the moon landing is a fake and professional wrestling is real, pick another show.
Raleigh Ensemble Players presents Thyestes Thursday-Saturday, April 24-26, at 8 p.m.; Wednesday-Thursday, April 30-May 1, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, May 3, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 4, at 3 p.m.; and Wednesday-Saturday, May 7-10, at 8 p.m. in Gallery II, Artspace, 201 East Davie St., Raleigh, North Carolina. (NOTE 1: On May 2 from 7 to 9 p.m., REP will host an Open Studio in Gallery II of Artspace. The entire community is invited to help create an inclusive "living sculpture" to illuminate themes in Seneca and Caryl Churchill's text that are relevant to its experience. NOTE 2: The May 9 show will be a sign-language-interpreted and audio-described performance, with a Touch Tour starting at 7 p.m.) $15 ($10 students with ID and $12 seniors over 60 and military personnel). 919/832-9607, TTY: 919/835-0624. http://www.realtheatre.org/pages/current2003.htm.