Bradley University’s production of Aeschylus’ trilogy The Oresteia, which took place November 13–23, 2008, represents a magnificent collaboration.
In the Theatre Department, faculty and students, under the guidance of George Brown, professor of theatre arts and department chair, spent well over a year rewriting the text of this ancient Greek tragedy, which was first performed in 458 B.C. Their goal was to make the play, which begins with the murder of Agamemnon by his wife as he returns heroically from the Trojan War, understandable and relevant to an audience of contemporary college students who have little background in Greek history or theatre.
As they planned how to bring their script to the stage, they collaborated with a large team of faculty and students from the Multimedia Program, directed by James Ferolo, associate professor of multimedia. They wanted to use leading-edge digital filming, rendering, and projection techniques to blend together different media to enhance the storytelling. In their directors’ notes, Brown and Ferolo write that a goal of this collaboration is to create "something that is part movie, part theatre, and part Internet, but completely engaging."
The furies that torment Orestes (Justin Verstraete) appear as green electrical impulses with a human form, seeming more like subconscious forces than the gods of the ancient theatre.
In Bradley’s Oresteia, the convergence of multimedia and theatre and the attempt to make the drama relevant for a contemporary audience create many effects that contribute to an anti-illusive performance. Instead of creating an illusion and drawing the audience into the performance completely, anti-illusive techniques continually remind the audience that they are viewing a theatrical performance, not reality. In this way, Bradley’s production has some roots in Bertold Brecht’s concept of the "epic theatre." Brown and Ferolo state that they used many techniques to contribute to what Brecht called the alienation effect. "You keep the audience on the edge of their seat, not knowing what is going to happen next." For example, Brecht would use minimal props or interrupt the action with song or poetry. According to Brown and Ferolo, such techniques can encourage the audience to contemplate the action of the play within a social context and to approach the performance intellectually as well as emotionally. Justice is the central theme and question of The Oresteia—and this production challenges the audience to face that question head on, to determine what justice means not only for the characters in the play, but in their own lives.
In rewriting the play for a contemporary audience, the team had to find a way to deal with many traditional features of Greek theatre, such as the chorus. Aeschylus’ Oresteia features beautifully poetic choral odes, many of which the chorus would have sung during the performance. Though beautiful, the odes are dense with references that are difficult for a modern audience to understand. "If you didn’t have the footnotes, you could not read the odes today," Brown says. So, the team kept returning to the question: "if it doesn’t have relevance for current students, what is it saying?" They "kept going back to ‘what is the play saying about justice?’" They wanted the audience to consider this central concept for themselves.
Another convention of ancient Greek theatre that the production revised was deux ex machina—the god from the machine. In Aeschylus’ performances, this would have been an actor, playing the role of a god—Apollo, Zeus, or Athena—who would descend onto the stage, often suspended by wires, to create a resolution to an otherwise unsolvable dilemma.
In The Oresteia, for example, the other characters, and even some of the gods, cannot determine Orestes’ guilt or innocence. They know he killed his mother to avenge his father’s death. But they also know the story is complicated. His mother, Clytemnestra, kills Agamemnon because he sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, before leaving for the Trojan War. The gods, however, had ordered Agamemnon to slay Iphigenia in return for calm seas and strength in battle. Additionally, Apollo urged Orestes to kill his mother.
Wandering and tormented by "furies," Orestes begs for a resolution. At the trilogy’s end, Athena, the goddess of wisdom and justice, appears and proclaims Orestes’ innocence. To mortals, a verdict was unknowable, but a goddess could descend and pronounce a judgment and end Orestes’ anguish.
The furies began as actors dancing with scarves on green screen. This footage was then transformed by specialized software to create the electrical furies that tormented Orestes on the stage.
In Bradley’s rewriting of the play, people, not a god, must decide the verdict. Athena presides over a trial, right out of the television drama Law and Order, but the actors, and, ultimately, the audience, must come to their own decision about whether Orestes is guilty or innocent. Bradley’s production then contains a distinct irony: the "machine" has been perfected. Apollo and Athena are not lowered to the stage by means of awkward wires and baskets. They are powerful, engaging digital images projected onto the stage. But in losing their clumsy trappings, they have also lost some of their power. A civilization that can create virtual worlds, that can create a convincing image of a god that is both frightening and beautiful, cannot rely on supernatural intervention to solve its problems. Such intervention cannot replace our need to become intellectually engaged in issues.
In Aeschylus’ production of The Oresteia, the furies, the forces that torment Orestes, would have been gods portrayed by actors. In Bradley’s production, the furies become green electrical impulses dancing around Orestes. Their creation beautifully shows the strength of the convergence of multimedia and theatre. Dancers with scarves were filmed using choreographed moves. So the furies’ movements are natural and human. Ferolo says that in the filming of the furies, "we tracked their physical motions in the studio and then morphed those images through a program called particleIllusion." This software can process video images through various filters. In this case, the video of the dancers was processed through a filter that creates an electrical effect. These 21st-century furies are not gods, but represent guilt or subconscious forces, something much more understandable to a contemporary viewer.
Because of the difficulty of making this ancient text relevant for current students, rewriting the script took much longer than the collaborators had planned. This left less time to develop the multimedia aspects of the production. According to Brown and Ferolo, "the amount of technology we planned for was much more than ultimately hit the stage. There was no space for it. No time to have it fully developed into the play."
For example, Brown and Ferolo wanted to use three-dimensional projections in the performance. They have since worked out the technical issues and plan to go ahead and shoot a segment of the play in 3-D to take to conferences and use as a lab test. They hope to be able to integrate the technique into a future theatrical production.
Another technique they wanted to use, but had to abandon because of the cost of the required projectors, was to fill the whole stage and blanket the audience with video projections. "We wanted the projection to be wall to wall and floor to ceiling. In the front row they experienced the sense of being in the video—and we wanted that experience for everyone in the audience."
"The play is over. The real world awaits."
When they were planning for their 2007 production of The Adding Machine, which also combined theatre and multimedia, they had hoped to use text messaging to send comments about the play to the audience members’ cell phones. Since the technology to do this has evolved in the past two years, they were able to recycle the idea for The Oresteia. The messages commented on the action taking place on the stage. Again, these messages helped force viewers to not get drawn into the illusion, but to consider the action in the context of their own lives.
Appropriately, the final text message stated: "The play is over. The real world awaits."
Find out more about the many people who collaborated on The Oresteia, and how they created special effects, in their online production journal at oresteia.bradley.edu.