Back with a Vengeance: “Thyestes” opens at Court Theatre

Do yourself a favor and don’t read a synopsis of “Thyestes.” To read Seneca’s masterwork in brief is to boil it down to two feuding brothers, Thyestes and Atreus, engaged in a grim sequence of murder, deception, revenge, cannibalism…and a lot more murder. As director JoAnne Akalaitis of Court Theatre’s production of Thyestes will tell you, there’s much more to the play than an endless cycle of bloodshed.

“You pick up the New York Times and every day the photo editor has a picture of something terrible going on in the world, something of unspeakable violence. But it’s also beautiful. The play has that combination of violence and beauty, of evil and beauty,” she explains.

“Thyestes” is as pointed as it is poetic. Akalaitis asserts that Seneca, tutor to the Roman emperor Nero, conveyed his criticisms of the despot by committing the Greek myth to paper. “In Roman days, that was the way for playwrights to express their opinions about the tyrant. It was done in this veiled sort of way,” she says. The story of the House of Atreus and its curse barely exaggerates the violence of ancient Rome, however. After being accused of conspiring to kill Nero, Seneca himself escaped an assassination attempt, only to commit suicide in a fashion gruesome enough to befit one of his plays.

Even so, Akalaitis assures that Thyestes isn’t a total downer. “There’s definite comic relief,” she says. For one thing, not every act of violence in the story plays out on stage. “It’s an interesting convention,” Akalaitis begins. “If we don’t see part of the action, a messenger comes in to explain what happened. It’s Seneca’s way of negotiating violence with the audience.”

It is Atreus’ messenger, for example, who lets the audience know that Atreus has killed Thyestes’ sons, cut them into pieces, and served them to their father. Akalaitis, a five-time Obie Award winner for direction and sustained achievement, acknowledges that such a scene might be difficult to stage in real time. “We could see it in a movie maybe,” she muses, before letting on that the production features video footage of a mock-cooking show to portray the Thyestean feast.

That said, it’s pretty clear that Akalaitis’ production updates some aspects of the ancient Greek tragedy. In general, the set design refers to both ancient and modern Rome. “I wanted [the production] to be about Rome,” says Akalaitis, “with all the traffic and motorcycles and unbelievably fashionable people hobbling around in high heels.”

Being the University of Chicago alum that she is, Akalaitis first discovered Seneca “through the back door,” as she puts it, by reading Foucault. Although her first acquaintance with “Thyestes” came from the opportunity to direct it, Akalaitis’ respect for Seneca’s Stoic philosophy runs deep. “People think Stoic philosophy is about being stoic, when really it’s just about common sense,” she says. To Akalaitis, “‘Thyestes’ is a work worth updating and revisiting. She waited years to gain rights to the translation by English dramatist Caryl Churchill, whom she dubs “one of the greatest living playwrights.” She waited two years longer to actually produce the play’s Midwestern premiere. However, Akalaitis believes the wait has been worth it. To her, Thyestes is an important work to re-examine today because Seneca forces audiences “to ponder unspeakable violence in the decadence of society. How does that affect us? Or do we just turn off the TV and not read the news?”

Thyestes represents Akalaitis’s sixth time in the director’s chair at Court Theatre; her last production, “The Iphegenia Cycle,” was also based on Greek myth. “We keep coming back to the classics,” she says. “So many contemporary playwrights go back to the classics and rewrite, revisit, re-examine.” “Thyestes,” she says, is a particularly worthy case. “Stories like the house of Atreus are really big,” Akalaitis emphasizes. “It’s like history and life written in super capital letters. It forces you to think about government, society, and war.”