Agamemnon stuns five: Dream Theatre Company produces an exceptional show, but an audience?

(courtesy of Dream Theater Company)

Included in the Dream Theatre Company’s mission statement is the wish to “shatter the barrier between actor and audience.” In their latest production, “Agamemnon”, it was a small barrier to shatter. Only two players act in the tragedy onstage, and last Saturday, only five that people sat in the audience. The lack of attendance may have been the evening’s greater tragedy, because “Agamemnon”, in addition to being superbly written, is a genuinely well-acted production.

“Agamemnon”’s action unfolds over the course of the eponymous Greek king’s return from Troy. The program reads, “The play which you are about to see does not retell the events from Aeschylus, but of the unknown events in between the Trojan War and Agamemnon’s return home.” Agamemnon, played by Jeremy Menekseoglu, is accompanied by Cassandra, played by Courtney Arnett, the unwilling Trojan princess whose prophecies are fated to fall upon deaf ears. The majority of the plot concerns Cassandra’s feelings of alienation, initia­lly from her brutish Greek captors, but ultimately from humanity itself.

Menekseoglu, who wrote, directed, and plays the title role in the piece, makes a fine Agamemnon. Throughout the play, he grapples with the immorality of his siege upon Troy, his abduction of a 16-year-old girl, and other past wrongs. Menekseoglu seems to inhabit his character completely, equally comfortable sneering at the precocious Cassandra and howling helplessly into the dark eaves of the performance space.

Menekseoglu’s co-star, the girlish and supremely talented Courtney Arnett, provides the perfect complement to his on-stage volatility. Her measured speech ticks like a fateful metronome against the background of the dialogue; Arnett’s ability to capture the innocence of her character is crucial to the escalation of tension within the work. This doesn’t mean that she can’t belt out a hoarse cry when required–some of the most poignant moments in “Agamemnon” are brought to life by her desperate wails and teary-eyed pleading.

“Agamemnon”’s direction and set design feature a few charming anachronisms that elicited a chuckle from the audience members. In one scene, the two characters throw back flutes of wine as a static-laced radio play about the life of Heracles plays in the background. In another, Cassandra impresses the king with her jazz dancing, showing off the Susie Q she “learned from the Oracle at Delphi.” These devices are not employed for purely comedic purposes, however. The blurring of the lines between past, present, and future are critical to the work, lending it a challenging metaphorical dimension. This is manifest in the resistance of Cassandra and Agamemnon’s relationship to conventional categories: they are neither friends nor lovers. Indeed, even Cassandra’s ostensible ill will toward Agamemnon is suspended for a few humorous scenes.

The action onstage is often interrupted by Cassandra’s prophetic visions, which propel the play’s plot and serve as a showcase for Arnett’s stellar acting. Seeing her go misty-eyed as she foresees the downfall of Agamemnon is a jarring reminder to the audience that the characters in the play are playing by the fatalistic rules of Greek myth, a fact that is easy to forget given the relatively modern presentation of the work.

Dream Theatre’s “Agamemnon” boasts excellent writing and moving performances, both of which seem to hinge on Jeremy Menekseoglu’s manifold artistic prowess. The ease with which the actors transcend their humble set and stride among the audience is a skill that was wasted on the twenty-four out of twenty-nine empty seats in the theater.
Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th St. Through April 11. Thursday-Saturday, 8pm. $15.