Last night, the curtain went up on the Tower Players’ production of “The Eumenides” in a dizzying display of towering temples, grotesque demons, and bewitching odes.
Angell said he selected this play in part because its key theme — the conflict between “reasoned jurisprudence” and “vengeance” — is a question human societies have debated for centuries.
“The essential theme of the play is justice and how you achieve justice in a society,” he said. “This was the very first courtroom drama ever. And it lays out the Athenian court system, which we have adopted as our court system.”
“The Eumenides” is the third play in Aeschylus’s “Oresteia,” preceded by “Agamemnon” and “The Libation Bearers.” The action begins with Orestes (played by sophomore Austin Benson) murdering his mother Clytemnestra (sophomore Rebecca Carlson) in revenge for her murdering of his father Agamemnon earlier in the trilogy. The ancient guardians of justice, the Furies — this production has five — demand that Orestes die for his bloodshed, but Apollo (sophomore Lane Gaudet) pleads on his behalf and sends him to Athena (senior Dani Morey) for justice. The rest of the play revolves around the court case. Athena assembles a jury to hear both Orestes’ and the Furies’ side of the story, and the tension of the play becomes whether Orestes’ life can be spared by the law or whether, as the Furies claim, “there is no salvation — not from Athena, nor from Apollo.”
While classic Greek drama on the Hillsdale stage is exciting enough, reveling in this play’s spellbinding aesthetics is an added delight. Angell and his team have put together Greek staging methods, rotating scenery, gods in gleaming masks, the haunting melodies of live choruses, and complicated dance routines to create an impressive display of techniques that provides a kind of drama all its own.
“One of my particular expertises is in masked performance, and Greek plays are all masked performance,” Angell said. Though he has led productions where the actors wore half-masks before, this time he decided to go with full masks — a decision that significantly complicated the production process.
All the supernatural characters in the play — Athena, Hermes, Apollo, the ghost of Clytemnestra, and the Furies — are masked. While David Knezz, a professional based in Chicago, created the masks for the gods, Angell asked senior Katherine Frank to design and build five for the Furies. Though she’d never built a mask before, as an art major she was familiar with three-dimensional work and had experience working in the theater department’s scene shop.
With the oversight of costume designer Bryan Simmons, Frank spent the summer constructing five masks from celluclay (a powder mixed with water, akin to paper-mache), Fosshape (a fabric that can be heated and hardened into any shape), and acrylic paint.
“In some ways, I was controlling the design,” she said. “The one thing that I really have been leading in all of this is the color. For the most part, Bryan’s costumes are bouncing off of my color.”
“All of the furies have their own personality,” she said. “Their own slightly different colors, some of them are very different shapes.”
The Furies are certainly the stars of the show. Played by senior Ria Harju, junior Katie Davenport, sophomore Jessica MacFarlane, senior Mikel Eatough, and junior Rachel Watson, they have had to learn both to act as individuals and to speak in unison, as a single character — all while wearing masks, writhing about the stage in contorted positions, and speaking or singing their lines through microphones.
“Everybody’s worked so hard,” Angell said. “I’ve been so impressed with my Furies — the main character of the play is divided into five chunks, but they’re all pulling together as a team.”
According to Frank, Angell wanted the Furies to be neither too animalistic nor too human.
“Trying to make something nonhuman, not a direct relation to an animal, but not completely abstracted, was a very difficult tension,” she said. “Some of them succeeded more than others.”
Angell employed Eilly Halligan, an alumna, to record original music for the odes in the play. She used two Greek theatrical instruments — the aulos (a wind instrument) and the stringed lyre — to create the recordings. Onstage, the cast will sing the odes along to the recordings.
“In the ancient Greek plays, the choral odes that are the centerpieces are sung and danced and chanted in the originals,” Angell said. “If you see a Greek play today, you seldom see those odes done because there is no music.”
What with masks and live music, the crew used the Whalen Tape method to make rehearsing a bit easier. The actors recorded their lines in the initial stages of rehearsals and then worked through practices acting along to their own pre-recorded voices.
“We would play that and everyone would work through it just listening to themselves speak and acting it out,” assistant director junior Elena Creed said. “It eliminates that awkward phase of having your nose in the book and not being able to work on the physicality of your movements.”
The crew also used ancient Greek staging techniques.
“There’s a platform that will roll out called ekkeklyma,” Creed said. “We’re making that like it would have been back in ancient Greece — it’s going to be a spectacle, and that’s how things were then.”
Yet, even after the actors “strike” the show on Sunday, it might not be the end of “The Eumenides.”
“We’re actually entering our show in the American College Theater Festival,” Creed said. “So we’re hoping to get nominated to compete at the regional level in January.”