It was “The Reality of the Unreal,” a looming, seven-foot tall sculpture of Oedipus by M.B. Hanrahan, that gave Francisca Beach, artistic director of SENGA Classic Stage Company, the impetus to mount ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus’ trilogy known as “The Oresteia.” Part one, “Agamemnon,” is being premiered tonight under the title “The Curse of the House of Atreus.”
Through a “stroke of luck and generosity” on the sculptor’s part, the large piece Ms. Beach saw now dominates the stage at the Ojai Valley Grange.
Ms. Beach assembled her adaptation of Aeschylus’ work with the guidance of nine translations of the original ancient Greek and two modern adaptations. When she finished, her version was six and a half hours long — and that was with cutting. But do not fear: This third of the whole is a complete story, in which Agamemnon (Ronald Rezac) returns from the Trojan War to find his wife, Clytemnestra (Natasha Zavala), waiting for him, and ready to get revenge for her husband’s sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia (Callie Stephens) to the gods. Agamemnon has also brought back the spoils of war, including the daughter of Priam, Cassandra (Emily Heffner), who can see the future. But at is typical of Greek tragedy, nobody believes the prophet until it’s too late. (Just ask Oedipus.)
“The way I work with translations,” Ms. Beach says, “is I read them, and if I understand them and think I can direct them, then it’s a good one. If it’s too obscure for me, or too academic, I know I can’t put it on the stage.” In the world of Greek translation, literal translations may be the most faithful, but terrible reading. For those interested, Ms. Beach favors Edith Hamilton and Gilbert Murray, with modern work from Charles Mee.
“I also want something to appeal to modern audiences, especially young people,” she says. “Because they are the audience of the future.”
“The Curse” tries to blow the dust off the usual “classic” productions, and sets the play in a theater-in-the-round style.
Ms. Beach called on Ojai resident Robert Lamarche to design the masks for the chorus of three actors, creating pieces that are breathable and easy to perform in.
SENGA started in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1997, as an all-woman company. Ms. Beach wanted to promote female playwrights and her five workshopped projects went to the Edinburgh Festival. The company came to a halt because “we all got fed up with each other,” Ms. Beach says — one of the few times any hint of a brogue enters her voice. “Because we were women. It gets a bit hairy sometimes.”
When Ms. Beach came to Ojai, she revived the company’s name and decided to focus on the classics, though she mounts one contemporary production each year.
Greek tragedy, though focused on wartime, always goes back to the women, the mothers and daughters.
“‘Working on a Greek tragedy is like stepping into a Rolls Royce,'” says Ms. Beach, quoting Mr. Mee. “It’s the very, very best of psychological themes which are still universal.”
‘The Curse of the House of Atreus’
When: 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun., through April 28
Where: Ojai Valley Grange, 381 Cruzero St., Ojai