Class issues loom large in Messenger #1's potent visual images
There are messengers all over Shakespeare. They fetch and carry, run on and off with news — but no one gives them much thought, despite the dangers of their profession. There are exceptions, of course: Someone occasionally flings a messenger a coin; at other times messengers are hit or killed. Cleopatra threatens to have the poor soul who brings her news of Antony's marriage "whipped with wire and stewed in brine," and Macbeth utters one of the most memorable curses in the English language when he's given bad news about a battle: "The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon." And now, just as Tom Stoppard decided to give Hamlet's insignificant friends their due in his brilliant Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, so playwright Mark Jackson has illuminated the lot of the lowly messenger in Messenger #1. His script is far shorter and lighter than Stoppard's, but it's also engaging, funny, thought-provoking and sometimes touching.
The play is a retelling of Aeschylus's Oresteia from the point of view of three messengers who serve the House of Atreus. Messenger #2 is a swift, efficient fellow, aware of his place and obsequious to power. Messenger #1 is in love with the slave girl who tended Electra and Orestes, the son and daughter of the house, when they were children — until they themselves were sold into slavery. (Though the program provides a helpful summary of Aeschylus's trio of Greek tragedies, you don't need background; you just need to know that the royal family is bloodthirsty, superstitious and irrational, and that everything significant is going to happen on the stage right in front of you, anyway.) What Messenger #1 doesn't know at the play's beginning is that his beloved slave girl has run away, disguised herself as a boy (like so many of Shakespeare's heroines) and transformed into Messenger #3.
While the rulers inhabit ancient Greece, the messengers seem to live in 1920s Brooklyn. They wear those bellboy outfits with the funny hats, and when they talk, they sound like refugees from Guys and Dolls. The royals are stiffer and more dignified and their speech is exalted and poetic — when Electra goads her brother into committing murder, she channels Lady Macbeth almost word for word — except, that is, when they're seriously pissed off. At that point, they tantrum like two-year-olds and utter scatological curses. The juxtapositions are hilarious.
Class issues loom large. The higher-ups are one-dimensional, murderous dopes who don't even see the messengers; it's the latter who have actual insight and understanding. Messenger #3 is an iconoclast who challenges the prevailing order and takes her role as a truth-teller very seriously; her lover just wants to keep her safe. The role of storytelling in human affairs gets explored, too. The messengers are aware that their words create not just the first draft of history, but the final narrative. That narrative is completely corrupt, however, because all they can do is parrot what those in power want them to say. Sometimes they seem to peer into the future and see the myriad information channels we have now. And while no explicit comparisons are made in the play, you can't help thinking about the role of big money in controlling today's news: Messenger #3's devotion to truth-telling serves her badly, and in the end, the triumphant dance of the powerful continues uninterrupted.
The production incorporates music and dance and creates potent visual images; the overall effect is clean and elegant. Despite the stylized approach of Messenger #1, the actors, all of whom are excellent, create some poignant moments: Jason Maxwell as lean, speedy Messenger #2; Brian Landis Folkins playing lovestruck Messenger #1; Meridith C. Grundei's tough, wiry and idealistic Messenger #3. As for the royals, Hayden Winston pulls all the right faux-tragic strings as guilt-driven Orestes, Sonia Justl's Electra is deliciously bratty, and McPherson Horle's transformation from Clytemnestra to a Fury to Athena simply has to be experienced.
There's been a lot of talk among theater people lately about how to attract audiences and stay solvent. The Catamounts, a company under the direction of Amanda Berg Wilson, have marked out a very specific place in the local ecology. It emphasizes small, smart, interesting new pieces, the kind that mainstream audiences haven't heard of, and puts them in gutsy venues off the beaten track. The success of this production sends a strong message.
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