The Greeks knew their myths — for the rest of us there’s exposition. “Orestes, A Tragic Romp,” (Anne Washburn’s clever adaptation of Euripides’ classic now playing at Folger Theatre) opens with local favorite Holly Twyford serving up a steaming heap of salacious back story.
As Electra, the title character’s devoted unmarried sister, Twyford relays how Orestes (a nuanced Jay Sullivan), encouraged by her, has murdered their adulterous mother Clytemnestra who had killed their heroic father, Agamemnon. Now, Orestes is out of his mind, and Electra is fairly freaked out herself, as they await the judgment of the people of Argos who are deciding whether to vindicate the royal siblings or stone them to death. Though very serious, Electra’s monologue is peppered with humorous asides and sarcastic cracks, and Twyford delivers it marvelously.
Washburn’s work tackles the same issues as its 2,400-year-old source material: fate, immortality and the quest for justice. While hardly stuck in antiquity with its informal language and occasional contemporary references, the Folger production (confidently staged by Aaron Posner) remains true to custom in some respects: Like in ancient Athens, this tragedy also summons a Greek god (the voice of British star Lynn Redgrave) to descend on the scene and make sense of all that’s transpired. There is also a chorus to move things along, as well as a trio of busy actors to play most of the parts.
In addition to playing Electra, Twyford dons a derby and becomes Clytemnestra’s elderly and understandably disgruntled father. Last month, Twyford, who is gay, received three Helen Hayes Awards nominations as Outstanding Lead Actress in Resident Play for her last season’s performances in Signature Theatre’s “The Little Dog Laughed,” Theatre J’s “Lost in Yonkers,” and “Arcadia,” another Folger production also directed by Posner. Winners will be announced at the organization’s annual ceremony in April.
Versatile Chris Genebach tackles four parts including that fabled femme fatale Helen of Troy (as veiled grand dame) and her husband Menelaus, Orestes and Electra’s ambitious uncle. And Margo Seibert steps out of the chorus to play Helen’s oblivious hostage daughter, Hermione.
The ubiquitous five-woman chorus precisely executes James Sugg’s eclectic mix of chants and melodic songs especially written for this world premiere production. Jessica Ford’s costumes are attached to no specific era. She’s dressed the chorus in muted thick sweaters over dresses over pants over boots (more Celtic than Grecian, but somehow effective). Daniel Conway’s set is the forecourt of the noble brother and sister’s ancestral brick home. With Cycladic masks, a stone bench, wooden columns and a lawn of rocks (suggesting their possible fate), it might be simpler.
Even after seeing “Orestes, A Tragic Romp,” you probably won’t remember myths like the Greeks did, but you’ll be more likely to recall some of the timeless lessons imparted in their telling.
Orestes, A Tragic Romp
Through March 7
201 East Capitol Street, SE