Tarragon Theatre/Orestes, written by Rick Roberts, directed by Richard Rose, live interactive online production, Feb. 3 to Feb. 14.
We have coined a new theatrical phrase in this time of plague — “live online”. This means the viewer is seeing a play unfold in real-time. It is not a pre-recorded film. With their venues tightly shuttered, theatres have had to move into the digital age, so a live online production is as close as you are going to get to a real theatrical experience.
Tarragon Theatre’s premiere of Rick Roberts’ Orestes is part of that brave new world.
Along with the usual suspects like set, costume, lighting and sound designer, we have now added to the creative team, video and stream designer, video operator, web interface designer, and lighting interface designer. These artists have helped to fashion Tarragon’s virtual theatre. All this came about when the company had to cancel the production of Orestes which was due to open the 2020/2021 season. It was play director/Tarragon artistic director Richard Rose who came up with the idea to overhaul Orestes for online streaming. Roberts’ reworking of Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy had already moved the plot into the digital world, with Orestes being an influencer with millions of followers. The baseline of the material was there for the transformation.
What the Tarragon had to do was develop what Rose calls the “tech build”. The result is a major rewrite with each of the ten actors performing in their own space or mini studio. Throughout the play, they are either online with each other, or engaging in cell phone conversations. It is interesting that Roberts, in a YouTube video, said that he can’t imagine Orestes ever being a stage play again because as a virtual play, he could expand and explore the subject to such a greater degree.
The basic plot does loosely follow the Greek original. Orestes (Cliff Cardinal) has killed his mother Clytemnestra for causing the death of his father Agamemnon, and although acquitted of the crime by not being criminally responsible, he has been de-platformed, or banished from all social media. Can an influencer, “the poet laureate of the internet”, survive offline? His sister Electra (Krystin Pellerin) doesn’t think so, and Orestes is already showing signs of madness. She wants to flaunt the law and bring him back online. She also wants their uncle Menelaus (Richard Clarkin) to lift the banishment, and points out that Menelaus is also a murderer by starting the Trojan War in order to rescue his kidnapped wife Helen of Troy (Lisa Ryder). Their grandfather Tyndareus (David Fox), Clytemnestra’s father, wants Orestes to be punished and puts pressure on Menelaus to do so. An Orestes supporter is his cousin Hermione (Eleanor Guy), a talented singer and the daughter of Menelaus and Helen, whose new album and music video are both in the cause of Orestes.
Electra has created #orestesarmy to get Orestes’ followers onside, and in Roberts’ modern-day plot, the Greek chorus contains fervent fans of Orestes — the fortune-telling CASMR@NDRA (Bren Eastcott), the merch guru RuDaGold (Anthony Perpuse), the backward-looking artist MandLbrot (Gabriella Sundar Singh), and Pylades (Jeff Ho), the latter being Orestes’ closest friend from the original play. How all these characters interact together is the burden of Roberts’ play.
By being virtual theatre, Roberts was able to add in interactive elements. At two points in the play, audience members get to choose a chorus member to follow, before returning to the main story, which fleshes out their character. At another time, they get to choose to follow one of the women. At the end of the play, we all got a surprise phone call from Helen.
As well, there is a chat room with running commentary by the viewers. At one point, CASMR@NDRA, RuDaGold and MandLbrot join the chat room. They mostly interact with each other, but do some back and forth when viewers chime in. Now all this technology does lead to some glitches. For example, I got closed out of the site whenever I made a choice to follow, and had to re-enter with the password. According to the chat room, others had various troubles as well, but we didn’t miss anything and were able to follow our characters once back on the site. As a side note, I did put a message on the chat room that I found having to sign in annoying, and someone called Diva tartly told me to “Deal with it. Recognize complexities.”
Judging from the post-play chat room comments, everyone was impressed with the video design, or as viewer Sam called it, “the unique inventive technique” that, according to Rose, involved green screens, multiple cameras and arms-length sound and lighting design (courtesy Kimberly Purtell and Thomas Ryder Payne, respectively). In fact, we were told to wear headsets to really benefit from Payne’s evocative sound design. Of course, kudos to Frank Donato, video and stream designer/video operator, and Ian Garrett/toasterlab, for the web interface. Imaginative touches include how each person’s image moves about the screen, sometimes interposed on each other, for example, Electra appearing on a wall of her brother’s room, or, the use of backgrounds – like Menelaus giving his speech in a Greek amphitheatre. As Electra recounts her brother’s online success, we are shown a series of glamorous photos of Orestes.
When people are talking about Agamemnon’s death, we see flashbacks. Throughout the play, isolated words appear on the screen like a subconscious word association puzzle which adds a psychological element. Shannon Lea Doyle is responsible for the sets and costumes, which are cleverly character-specific. Sometimes people are in headshots, other times in rooms. For example, we first see Helen in a staircase foyer of a home garbed in sunglasses, kerchief and trench coat, and later in a headshot, she wears elaborate jewellery and the criss-cross top of an ancient Greek costume.
As for the play itself, Roberts often resorts to heightened poetic language which at times is obscure and elliptical, particularly for the chorus (including their names), but he also has some wonderfully descriptive prose, such as Electra’s “Menelaus loves Helen like a dog eating its own shit”, or “Helen is always camera-ready”, or “History is written between events”. Tyndareus calls the House of Atreus “a self-consuming family”, while Orestes states that “Shame is a form of exile”. Menelaus calls Orestes “a study of rage”. Unfortunately, judging from the chat room, there was confusion about the ending which features Orestes’ disembodied head. Thus, as a whole, the play tends to take a surreal rather than linear approach so you have to work at following what the characters are saying. I’m not sure that Roberts succeeds in dissecting the meaning of identity and loss thereof. On the other hand, we do get a very strong picture of a dysfunctional family warring within itself. As for the interactive elements, while it is interesting following specific characters, what this adds to the story as a whole is open to argument. Nonetheless, the play is helped by excellent acting throughout, particularly from Pellerin, Clarkin and Fox.
The greatest take-away from Tarragon’s Orestes is the fact that the company went for broke on creating original digital live online theatre, a risky venture if ever there was. From a visual viewpoint, the complex production is superb, especially in how all the diverse elements come together and move through real-time.
As viewer Jeff wrote in the chat room: “So great to attend a live opening night during this pandemic.”
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