With no surviving Greek version of the macabre episode of the House of Atreus’ feuding brothers Atreus and Thyestes, we only have the Roman retelling of the tragedy by Stoic philosopher and dramatist Lucius Anneus Seneca, tutor to emperor Nero who ultimately was forced to commit suicide when he met the notoriously sadistic emperor’s displeasure. More of a recitation than a play as such, director JoAnne Akalaitus breathes new life into the piece by choosing the vibrant and poetic but blessedly modern translation by British playwright Caryl Churchill, though we are told that this Court Theatre season opening production is the Midwest premiere of the work in any form. Akalaitis emphasizes its Roman context and the parallels of an ancient and modern morally bankrupt society, though it is worth noting that the shock of this play to Romans, namely, that the title character could unknowably eat his own sons in a feast served by his brother, would have been the sudden stoppage of a legitimate blood-line more than what shocks us, watching a father who has interacted with his sons tenderly have to agonize with the reality that he has pleasurably consumed them in a tantalizing stew prepared by his own brother. The entire proceedings are given an eerie, ethereal and relentless quality by a constant though subtle musical drone, the stately and static movements of the cast, merciless one liners (“Think of your children as close by”) and a sometimes reciting, sometimes singing Greek chorus that comments on what takes place. Seneca offers us some real food for thought that reflect an amoral, ambiguous and apocalyptic society such as, “You have to be greedy not to want to die when the whole world is dying with you,” and “Where were the gods who protect the innocent?” (Dennis Polkow)
At Court Theatre, 55335 S. Ellis, (773)753-4472. This production is now closed.