Aeschylus' Choephoroe
translated by Umberto Albini
directed by Giorgio Pressburger

Euripides' Medea
translated by Maria Grazia Ciani
directed by Mario Missiroli

Performed under the auspices of INDA
at the ancient theater at Syracuse, Sicily

Summer 1996

Review by Thomas A. Pallen
Austin Peay State University

For its 34th Cycle of Classical Plays at the Greek Theatre of Siracusa, Sicilia, the National Institute of Ancient Drama decided to employ a single designer, Enrico Job, and two separate directors, Giorgio Pressburger for Choephoroeand Mario Missiroli for Medea.

As Dario Del Corno pointed out in an essay entitled, 'La tragedia greca dal testo alla scena moderna' ('Greek Tragedy as a Modern Stage Text'), modern directors have tended toward two poles of interpretation. Some have chosen to reinterpret ancient scripts in the light of modern events and trends, while others have elected to present the text as timeless paradigms of human conduct and dilemma. Del Corno lables the former 'interpretative' and the later 'representative.' (Dioniso, 1993, pp. 35-43) As though they had read Del Corno's essay and decided to personify these two polar possibilities, Pressburger opted for an interpretive version of Choephoroe and Missiroli for a representative reading of Medea.

The headline of a brief notice in La Nazione of 22 May, 1996, read, 'Surprise at Siracusa: the Choephoroe are punk.' The unidentified reporter quoted Anna Bonaiuto, cast as Elektra, as saying, 'If you want the peplum and the cothurnai, it's better not to come.' The real problem, however, was not the 'punk' appearance of the chorus, but Pressburger's failure to integrate that appearance and other elements with the play itself. Indeed, this was yet another instance of a modern director's lack of confidence in the audience. The performance began, not as Aeschylus intended with Orestes' return from exile to his native city, but rather with an agonizingly long 'prologue' during which male figures in metal-studded black costumes, their faces concealed by mask-like white and black makeup, moved about the performance space without any detectable intent or pattern. Their meanderings accompanied a pre-recorded tape that recited, in interview form, the identity of various Greek dieties, heroes, and geographical locations, only some of which had a bearing on the events about to unfold. These were interrupted now and then by brief montages of fragmented news broadcasts in a variety of languages. The ordeal ended with definitions of the 'punk' culture that attempted to parallel it to the function of gods and heroes in the ancient Greek culture. The audience had the excellent sense to ignore most of this preamble, which led into a sort of pantomime during which two young children wearing costumes completely unrelated to those of the male 'chorus' descended a truly monumental staircase, crossed the deep stage, and made their way out of the theatre via the stairways in the audience. Distracted by this unexplained and unexplainable passage, the audience nearly missed the long-delayed entrance of Orestes and his travelling companion, Pylades.

As Orestes discovered the tomb of his father, Agamemnon, the value of Job's scenographic choices became apparent. Rather than the more traditional and expected architectonic altar or sarcophagus, Job had decided to depict the great Agamemnon's grave as nohing more than a humble heap of cindery gravel, decorated by nothing more than a few rusting and badly-battered ewers. Orestes literally grovelled in this grave, tossed handfuls of cinders, prostrated himself on its gritty surface, dug into it to address his father's spirit, and emerged with hands, clothing, and face marked by and merged with Agamemnon's presence.

Ennio Fantastichini and Anna Bonaiuto performed Orestes and Elektra brilliantly; Ivana Monti's Clytemnestra proved less convincing only because she was obviously too young, even in myth, to be Orestes' mother. Antonietta Carbonetti as Orestes' former Nurse, Franco Interlenghi as Aegisthus, and Marcello Colasurdo as the Servant who brings the news of Aegisthus' death, all provided memorable performances.

Aeschylus' script calls for two distinct scenic locations, the tomb and the palace of Argos. To depict the latter, Job located a monumental stone staircase at the back of the stage, leading to a doorway placed at the center of an immense, tilted disc made up of concentric circles of mirrored glass panes. The presence of some broken and even missing panes indicated the deterioration of Argos and its royal family. As Orestes emerged from the doorway near the play's end, preceded by servants who kicked and carried the corpses of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, more panes shattered, visually and aurally accenting the further shame of Argos. The slanted disc, which caught the ambient light without reflecting it back into the audience's eyes, provided a superb visual counterpoint to the cindery tomb at the other extreme of the deep playing space. These two visual elements demarcated an axis that drew the spectators' attention into the play. Two ranshackle wooden sheds raised on trestles and several stacks of scorched and rusted car bodies, which served more or less as playground equipment for the punk male 'chorus,' had exactly the opposite effect, distracting from rather than attracting to the action of the drama.

As written, the play ends with Orestes' terrifying vision of the Furies and a brief summation by the Chorus, but here again Pressburger felt obliged to intervene. First, Elektra, who had shed the purple dress worn earlier in favor of a white one, descended the long staircase to toss a sprig of white flowers on Agamemnon's grave; then, the two youths reappeared from the audience, crossed the depth of the stage, and returned up the stairs to the palace. Although this closed the parenthesis opened by Pressburger's prologue, it also falsely concluded a play written to lead to the third part of the Oresteia, Eumenidies, in which the Furies and Athena finally end the horrific actions initiated by humans.

Mario Massiroli's interpretation of Medea proved much more unified and satisfying than Pressburger's Choephoroe. Again, Job's scenography provided a bi- polar performance space. The vast disc again marked the distant limit of the playing space, this time completely vertical and sheathed not in glass but in metal, partly rusted. At the other extreme, near the audience, a wide hole served as the 'doorway' of Medea's Corinthian domicile. In this case, however, the designer diminished the force of the scenographic axis by placing a wide grove of ancient olive trees between the open playing space and the towering metalic disc, thus wisely diminishing its presence until the proper time for it to 'take the stage'.

In the welcome absence of distracting makeup, unnecessary performers, and undecipherable symbols, the force of plot and character drew the audience deeply into this powerful production. Anita Bartolucci's portrayal of the anxious Nurse and Gianni Conversano's timidly dutiful interpretation of the Pedagogue led beautifully to Valeria Moriconi's entrance as Medea. Massiroli's skillful blocking had her emerge from the palace's underground entrance with her back to the audience, one more black-draped figure nearly lost amongst the Chorus and the Nurse. With a quick turn to face the audience, her powerful voice filled the vast theatre: 'Donne di Corinto, ecco, sono uscita perche non abbiate da ridere.' ('Women of Corinth, behold, I have come forth to keep you from laughing at me.'-- the last phrase also translatable as 'because you have nothing to laugh at.')

From then on, even the fine performances of Gabriele Ferzetti as Creon, Paolo Graziosi as Jason, and Donatello Falchi as Aegeus had little hope of standing up to the force of Moriconi's Medea. Even in near silence, her presence dominated the stage as Ireneo Petruzzi forcefully delivered the Messenger's grisly description of the deaths of Glauce and Creon.

The staging challenge of this play occurs at its end, with a near deus-ex-machina escape from Jason's wrath for Medea on the chariot of 'the father of my father, the Sun.' Job achieved this colpa di scena with a machine that fitfully portrayed Medea's triumphant moment. The center of the huge metalic disc opened like the iris of some diety's eye, revealing the Sun's Chariot and its prancing, golden horses, driven by Moriconi's ringing, triumphant delivery of Euripedes' rhetoric: 'Se non puoi ridere di me, il mio dolore e' gioia!' ('Since you are not able to ridicule me, my sorrow is joyous!')

And indeed, whereas Pressburger's 'interpreted' Choephoroe nearly drowned in perplexing imagery, Missiroli's clean, direct, 'represented' Medea crowned its sorrowful events with the audience's joy.

Thomas A. Pallen
Austin Peay State University

(Thomas A. Pallen is a professor of theatre history at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. His book, The Theatre Historian's Guide to Vasari, has been accepted for publication by Southern Illinois University Press.)