May 3, 2019 at 3:17 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Actress/playwright Ellen McLaughlin relishes working with Michael Kahn
Ellen McLaughlin review, gay news, Washington Blade
Ellen McLaughlin says after two initial stipulations, STC Founder Michael Kahn gave her freedom for their collaboration ‘The Oresteia.’ (Photo courtesy STC)

‘The Oresteia’ 

Through June 2 

Shakespeare Theatre Company

Sidney Harman Hall 

610 F St., N.W.

$44-118 

202-547-1122

When Michael Kahn asks you to do something, you do it. It’s that simple. 

And so, playwright/actor Ellen McLaughlin explains the genesis of her latest work, “The Oresteia” — not a translation of Aeschylus’ trilogy about revenge, murder and justice, but rather a new version freely adapted from the Greek classic. 

In the spring of 2016, Kahn and McLaughlin met for coffee in Manhattan. The out director confided that he planned to end his long and illustrious tenure as artistic director of D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company by directing a play based on the original and he wanted McLaughlin to write it. 

“The offer came with just two stipulations: First, Aeschylus’ three plays must be performable in one evening,” McLaughlin says. “And secondly, the primordial, vengeful goddesses found in ‘The Eumenides,’ the final piece of the trilogy, needed to be really scary without costuming the actors as monsters. I accepted his challenging offer on the spot.”

Aeschylus is the first of the great Greek dramatists. He actually came up with the dramatic form. In “The Oresteia,” the first and second tragedies of the trilogy include Agamemnon’s murder by his wife and her lover and his wife and lover’s murder by Agamemnon’s son Orestes. The third play is about justice. The ancient Greeks did not take matricide lightly. 

There’s a hugeness and majesty to what Aeschylus does, so the project was daunting, she recalls. But McLaughlin had successfully adapted the Greeks before, so she knew what to do. Since she doesn’t read Greek, McLaughlin relies on extant translations. After much reading, she pushes the translations away and gets down to writing wherever she might be (jobs take her far and wide), but mostly in her orderly, light-filled study in Nyack, N.Y., a quiet town on the Hudson River. 

Working with Kahn has exceeded her expectations. 

“What Michael has done is completely unprecedented in my experience as a writer,” she says. “He gave me complete freedom. He advised me to move away from the source and not worry about him or Aeschylus, but rather to find my own solution to the problem. And that is one of the greatest gifts a writer could ever get.”

What’s more, throughout the rehearsal process, Kahn was generous in allowing McLaughlin to speak directly to the actors. 

“That’s very unusual for a director. But at this point in his career he has enough confidence in himself that he doesn’t have to protect his position in the room. He’s the top of the food chain. It’s remarkable and testament to his experience and how easily that experience rides on him.”

From the start, McLaughlin’s career has been two-pronged. She’s a playwright whose works have received numerous national and international productions, and an actor who has worked on and Off Broadway as well as extensively in regional theater. On the acting track, she is best known for originating the role of the Angel in out playwright Tony Kushner’s seminal work “Angels in America.” 

“There’s nothing quite like working on Broadway,” she says. “And doing a profoundly important piece that meant so much to so many made the experiences that much more. We were creating a central cultural event that would resonate in so many ways out into American and world culture; it would change the way people think.”

McLaughlin says “Angels” worked largely because of its lead character, Prior. 

“The momentous thing Tony did was to have Prior, the American everyman at the middle of this long and complicated saga, be a flamboyantly gay man with AIDS. That was revolutionary. And because he used humor, people were defenseless against it. You have to love Prior. You can’t deny that he’s profoundly brave. He’s a hero.”

She recalls a post-matinee talk back with a group of young Mormons. Mclaughlin and Stephen Spinella (the out actor who played defiant Prior Walter) were seated on the lip of the stage. A pretty, blonde girl raised her hand, stood and directed her comment to Spinella. 

“Everyone and everything in my life has taught me to hate you, and still, I love you.” 

They embraced and cried. 

“If that’s the only thing we accomplished,” Mclaughlin says, “It was all worth it.” 

Growing up in Chevy Chase, Md.., McLaughlin developed an interest in the arts early on. At Sidwell Friends School, she was exposed to Quaker pacifism, acted in plays, and also learned to paint scenery, a skill that got her through some lean years after graduating from Yale. 

Meeting Michael Kahn in the late ‘80s was a bright spot in her early career. At the time, Kahn was teaching acting at the Julliard School in New York while also helming STC in Washington (testament to his legendary energy), and McLaughlin was hired as playwright in residence at Julliard. 

“I got paid to hang around. I wasn’t required to write anything. I had access to everything except for Michael’s acting classes, those are private. I understood but was still curious.”

McLaughlin looks to the Greeks for guidance in today’s world. 

And unfortunately, “The Oresteia” which explores the contrast between violent revenge and true justice along with the transition from personal vendetta to organized litigation, remains all too relevant. She describes the current atmosphere in America as a cycle of violence in which the right is trying to take back the ground, they feel they’ve lost. And in turn, the left feels a desire for retribution. 

“It’s a kind of politics and way of living that’s brutal and doesn’t bring out the best in any of us,” she says. 

The Greeks brought all of their big issues — how to treat each other, how to treat the gods, what’s a good life, what’s an ethical life — to the theater, and consequently that’s why everyone gathered to see these beautiful yet disturbing plays filled with difficult images.

“They tell the most difficult stories and ask, but never answer, the hardest questions. That’s why I keep coming back to the Greeks,” McLaughlin says.  

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