Ragged Wing Goes Greek in New Production

Photo: <b>The trilogy.</b> Anna Shneiderman, Keith Davis and Amy Sass front Berkeley theater company Ragged Wing Ensemble's 'So Many Ways to Kill a Man,' an adaptation of Aeschylus' 'Oresteia.'
Bilha Sperling/Courtesy
The trilogy. Anna Shneiderman, Keith Davis and Amy Sass front Berkeley theater company Ragged Wing Ensemble's 'So Many Ways to Kill a Man,' an adaptation of Aeschylus' 'Oresteia.'

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To be Greek is to be in style these days, or so it seems. On the heels of Impact Theatre's punked-out version of "Antigone," East Bay group Ragged Wing Ensemble brings to the stage "So Many Ways to Kill a Man," an adaptation of Aeschylus' "Oresteia"-the bloody and vengeful tripartite dramatization of Agamemnon's return from the Trojan War, his wife Clytemnestra's rage and the ensuing curse on his descendants. But then again, the Greeks never go out of style. The gods demand it.

A small theater company with an even smaller budget, Ragged Wing is somewhat notorious for performing in theaters that aren't necessarily, well, theaters. This time it's the converted "Metal Shop Theater" tacked on to the side of Berkeley's Willard Middle School.

Played before the simple yet effective set of three blood-splattered walls, Agamemnon's (Keith Davis) homecoming is less than joyous: His wife Clytemnestra (Amy Sass) is in a murderous mood, and Cassandra (Anna Shneiderman), the prophetess he brought home as a concubine, sees visions of dead bodies everywhere she looks.

Director, actor and scriptwriter Amy Sass's Clytemnestra is as fierce as she is seductive. In an incarnadine velvet dress and black wig, she is a woman spurned who, after waiting 10 years for a husband she despises, has finally decided enough is enough. Sass's adaptation is set in no particular time period, though the characters fully retain their Greek names, histories and context. The oft-poetic dialogue has an edgy vein of modern cheekiness. "I have often wondered what it would be like to make love to a swan," Clytemnestra muses, languidly smoking a cigarette as she tells of her unconventional parentage. "I suppose it would be ... soft."

In a parody of the Greek form, Ragged Wing presents an interesting take on the traditional chorus: The actors exit the stage and reappear donning caricature-like puppets of elderly citizens constructed from paper-mache heads and sheets. In this guise, they squabble and gossip about the private lives of the royal family, make crude jokes and effectively relate the turbulent history of the cursed house of Atreus.

Such deviation and discord is a running theme in the production. The soundtrack is comprised of dissonant electronic effects and old-time jazzy airs performed by the cast. The disparity between the cheeriness of the music and the emotional heft of the play is eerily disarming, sometimes too much so. It is slightly perplexing when the cast breaks out in musical theater-like choreography and song just before one of the most intense moments of the play.

After the conclusion of the Clytemnestra-Agamemnon part of the play-the incarnation of the "Agamemnon" portion of "Oresteia" trilogy-the actors swap out their roles for the next generation of the Atreus line. Shneiderman reappears sporting a pink Mohawk as rebellious daughter Elektra, Davis is the deadbeat, dice-rolling son Orestes and Sass is the inexplicably pregnant youngest sister who has forgotten her name and hears voices in the walls.

This direct continuation of the "Oresteia," though novel in its presentation, seems a bit like an afterthought to the first part of the production. This second part is much shorter and simply not as well developed, as if it were still in the workshop stages. There is a reason why the Oresteia is a trilogy, and maybe the model would be more successful if Sass would write three, full adaptations to be performed separately.

It is clear that Ragged Wing should not be written off because of their small size, and their work is deserving of a larger audience. There is something almost unintentionally genius about "So Many Ways to Kill a Man," a minimalist albeit intense and well-performed show punctuated by moments of effortless poetry and wit. But as the disturbed and doomed characters of "So Many Ways" so tragically emote, in this world of ill-fated lives and ill-mannered gods, nothing is unintentional.


Arielle Little is the lead theater critic. Contact her at [email protected]



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