'Agamemnon' adaptation hits Lab stage

By Sabrina Favors
Ka Leo Columnist
October 24, 2003

Last year, I was taking a Greek and Roman mythology course here at the University of Hawai'i. One required reading for the class was Aeschylus' play, "Agamemnon." Around the same time, Cassandra Wormser was reading the "loose adaptation" of "Agamemnon" by playwright Steven Berkoff.

Now, a year later, Wormser is directing Berkoff's "Agamemnon" as part of the Earle Ernst Lab Theatre's Late Night program.

A playwright, actor and director, Berkoff was born in 1937 and wrote his adaptation in London in the 1970's, having developed it out of workshops. He first performed it in 1973. Yet, even after its premier performance, Berkoff continued to work on and improve it in workshops. In Wormser's opinion, there wasn't a thing lacking or off about the play, except for the placement of one speech of the chorus'.

The basic plot of Aeschylus' original is as follows: Agamemnon (played by Aito Steele in the adaptation) has been fighting in the Trojan War for the beautiful Helen of Troy (Lizbeth Grote). His wife, Clytemnestra (Annie Lipscomb), has an affair with Aegisthus (D. Omar Williams) while he is gone.

Clytemnestra and Aegisthus plot to kill Agamemnon for a couple of reasons, one being that he sacrificed one of his own daughters so the gods would summon a wind to get him to Troy. He returns with a concubine, Cassandra (who, because of a run-in with Apollo, has visions and can only speak the truth and is played by Ashley Larson). This makes Clytemnestra angrier and more resolved, regardless of the consequences. In the end, both Agamemnon and Cassandra are killed.

Trust me, that's the short version. The original play follows a linear time, from Agamemnon's return to his and Cassandra's deaths, with many monologues in between.

In Berkoff's adaptation, the events aren't so linear. The play starts with a rhythmic and musical telling of the "curse on the house of Atreus" (Agamemnon's father). The music often has to do with the play's sense of time. Things jump around just a bit; "but it all builds on each other."

In a place where opportunities for student directors are rare "unless you create it," Late Night Theatre offered Wormser, a second year graduate student at UH, a play full of "pure, dark poetry" and an open venue to interpret a "script so dense (he) didn't know what to do with it."

Wormser was already familiar with Berkoff, but had a friend who'd already done a production of "Agamemnon" on the East Coast direct it. "So I read it, and said I had to (direct it)," she shares. That friend, Nicolas Logue, later did most of the choreography.

"I had my eyes open for a piece where my influences were," she says. Her influences consisted of Asian theater forms. Wormser also felt the subject worked well for the time we're living in now because it contained themes of the "cynical nature of violence" and war. These themes were her primary reason for choosing this piece.

The play was written shortly after the Vietnam War, and Berkoff "tweaked" his adaptation to reflect that, including a few lines about napalm. It brought to Wormser's mind the fighting in Iraq right now. She had to "reconcile feelings as a participate of a country where I don't always agree and as a citizen of the world." The responsibilities conflict, and Wormser wanted to have a "fusion" of them, as "fuzzy" as the word fusion is. "(The play is) the perfect opportunity, but it scared the shit out of me."

Wormser took six months to think about it.

It was the chorus' speech about "'no more horrors' that cinched it for me," with its simple wish for an end to "all kinds of atrocities." Wormser spent the next two months working on it, and another five weeks working with the cast.

It was an "exciting, scary and big undertaking." Not only did Wormser want to incorporate various theater forms (i.e. dancing and singing) "to add, enhance and benefit the telling of the story," but she had to get the actors past any inhibitions. Wormser explains that people have "levels of inhibitions about using our bodies and voices, and that's all we have," which she says is very sad. "I'm most blown away when I see people break through the 'I can't sing, I can't dance,'" mentality. She adds that it's a rare person who doesn't have any of these inhibitions, but even with them putting together this play it would still be a challenge.

Besides the themes and the opportunity to work on a piece that could incorporate her training in the Asian theater forms, Wormser wanted to draw from her multicultural background as well as from the various cultures and influences of her cast.

"The text lends itself to movement, it's almost musical." With that in mind, Wormser wove in ballet, Hawaiian hula, Maori haka (a native New Zealand dance) and modern dance. Wormser also added her expertise in Asian theater -- kyogen, kabuki and jing-ju (formerly the Peking Opera) -- which she claims has a more "holistic approach." Physical acting in Asian theater is "well-synthesized," utilizing speech and movement. However, it's more likely their influences will be seen and not the actual forms themselves. The audience will feel that they're seeing something that's sort of like a dance they know, but they may not be able to place it. But placing it isn't the point, imbibing the entire effect of everything working together is.

Agamemnon will be playing tonight and Saturday night, with a post-show discussion after tonight's performance. The play starts at 11 p.m. and there is no intermission. That's okay though, because the show is only a little over an hour long. And even though Clytemnestra's voice drips with sarcasm and bitterness when she tells her servants to "render (Agamemnon) the welcome he deserves," the audience's welcome into the Earle Ernst Lab Theatre (to the side of Kennedy Theatre's main entrance) is very sincere.