(This article originally appeared in Huffington Post on 3/8/17.)
The plight of the messengers in ancient Greece is explored in Mark Jackson’s innovative dark comedy/drama Messenger #1, directed by Hondo Weiss-Richmond. In an time period LONG before e-mail, telephones, or even “snail mail”, the human messenger was essential in delivering news. We’ve all heard the ageless line “Don’t shoot the messenger!” In the era where this piece takes place, however, getting killed for delivering bad news was a very real possibility. In the words of one of the characters, messengers endured “feet smashed up to a pulp as we pound across endless wastelands of rock… skin made leather by the hateful sun as we stand ready to faint while blurting out between gasps for breath some message to some Queen only half listening from beneath her slave-held parasol… and legs sliced to shreds as we hop through mine fields of thorny weeds.” With all that, plus the risk of been executed for bad news, why would anyone choose to enter that, uhm… “profession”? Well, in the words of another character, “It’s a step up from slaving!”
Described as “a new ancient Greek tragedy”, Messenger #1 reinterprets the oft-retold myth of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra, the monarchs of Argos. Agamemnon (Dan Morrison) was the commander-in-chief of the Trojan War, AKA “Operation Helen”, and he is returning to his hometown as a military hero. (“Scars! Spears! Helmets under arms! Pucker up gals, our boys are comin’ home! God bless Argos!”) Tall, blond-haired Morrison plays the king as imperious but also more than a bit pompous: a lusty ruler who loves his collection of concubines almost as much as he loves killing Trojans. Although one of his loyal messengers (Jordan Kaplan) passionately declares his “dog-like” dedication to his master, not everyone is worshiping at the altar of Agamemnon. We learn that the king has sacrificed his daughter, Princess Iphigenia (Natalie Hegg)… and his wife Clytemnestra (Katie Consamus) is not ready to forgive him. For revenge, the pissed-off queen stabs her husband while he sleeps. Our “merry widow” of sorts then becomes the sole ruler of Argos. Having previously sold her remaining living children, Prince Orestes and Princess Electra, into slavery, the queen gets to work in issuing her first executive orders.
The prince (also played by Dan Morrison; At least no one can say that the actors playing father and son don’t look alike!) and princess (Natalie Hegg again) predictably resent their new role of servitude, and vow revenge against their power-hungry mother in an over-the-top, campy scene of Hellenic hysteria. Orestes’ declaration “I could just kill somebody right now!” becomes realized, leading to yet another chapter in this dysfunctional family drama. This time around, mere mortals face their moral conflict among the company of the legendary Furies and even the goddess Athena. Meanwhile, the messengers face their own conflict of whether or not to spill the secrets of the royal House of Atreus, which would cause a major scandal in Argos. While one messenger wants to stay loyal to the royals, another feels morally bound to tell the truth (The real truth, not “alternative facts”) for the good of the common people.
While the men in the play seem to relish channeling their testosterone into the joys of war, Messenger #1 goes through great effort to explore the role of women in this ancient culture— with allusions to how, millennia later, thanks haven’t changed as much as they should. Despite the fact that the Greeks worshiped goddesses as well as gods, purportedly went to war over one woman’s beauty, and could occasionally accept a woman as a ruler, females were still seen as inferior to males in ancient Greece. One character offers insight about her days in slavery: “For ten winters I stoked fires to warm their toes, never knowing there was more to womanhood than two kinds of woman: one made of gold and the other dirt, each doomed to a woman’s life in Argos.” The limited roles for women inspired that slave girl (Emily Kitchens) to masquerade as a boy to gain employment as a messenger. Her gender-bending facade results in complications when she falls for another messenger (J.C. Ernst). The result is actually a very sweet concurrent story, bolstered by the endearing portrayals by Kitchens and Ernst as the secret lovers. The two have genuine chemistry together, and their story of finding “αγάπη” in a hopeless place offers an interesting contrast to the other characters— who seem to thrive on manipulation, wheeler-dealing, blind loyalty, self-serving motivations, and hunger for power. As you may have guessed by now, Messenger #1 has a lot of themes which are still relevant in 2017. As the messengers on the stage bemoan their thankless job, I racked my brain at the beginning of the play to determine just what these unsung heroes’ equivalent occupation would be in 2017. But when they speak of, or allude to, being accused of promoting “fake news” or are ridiculed, threatened, or even worse for doing their job, the answer hit this reviewer like a brick. (Have YOU figured it out by now?) The fact that Messenger #1 was actually first performed in 2000 makes its prophetic message and allusions to modern politics even more astonishing.
With a cast of six— some of them, as you may have gathered, playing multiple roles— Weiss-Richmond’s direction makes the most out of the square-shaped, intimate space at Paradise Factory Theatre. It is the ultimate “black box theater” experience, with the players very close to the audience. For this experience, it works very well. Whether the youthful cast engages in simmer-and-seethe expressions of passion, or over-the-top, grand movements (which occasionally transform into boot-camp style calisthenics), the acting is excellent. The script mixes the indulgently quaint style of ancient Greek translation with some equally indulgent anachronisms and modern-day catchphrases. The cast certainly seems to be having fun: particularly Hegg as Electra and Morrison, who enjoys a double role as the ridiculously haughty king and his equally over-the-top but more neurotic and effete son. Consamus plays the unsympathetic role of a postulate dictatress to the hilt. Ernst and Kaplan are engaging as two easy-on-the-eyes and energetic messengers whose bro-mantic relationship is critically injured by the tyranny of political divide. The set design is simple, as are the costumes. (While the messengers’ look was appropriately stark, part of me wanted to see more extravagance in the costumes of the royals.) The conclusion of Messenger #1 is heavy… but in keeping with the play’s political themes, it’s tragically realistic— even in 2017.
Hunger & Thirst Theatre’s Messenger #1 plays through Saturday, March 18th at Paradise Factory, 64 E. 4th Street, New York City. Visit www.HungerandThirstTheatre.com for more information.