Blame the Greeks

Rarely has a play's title so aptly fit more than Sledgehammer Theatre's production of Furious Blood.The blood that runs through the veins of the members of the House of Atreus is a bitter, rancorous fluid that leaves death and destruction wherever and whenever it boils to the surface. Which is, oh, about 65 times during the course of this two-hour play.

And rarely has a play so obviously tried to make its point: Want to know why women have had it so hard for most of the past 2,500 years? Blame the Greeks, and by extension, blame that portion of the human race graced and cursed by having two balls and a penis dangling betwixt its legs.

This is a frequently brilliant although ultimately unsatisfying reconstruction of a handful of Greek plays, Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy and Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis.Kelly Stuart's freewheeling adaptation, which sets the action in a weirdly contemporary time, is blisteringly funny at times, and Kirsten Brandt's direction is intensely visceral. Together, their point is clearly made: the shift in Western civilization from matriarchy to patriarchy began in plays like this—and everything since has worked to keep Woman down.

It's an intriguing and obviously highly controversial statement. Look up these works in the standard tomes (written, of course, by men), and you'll learn they're attempts by Greek playwrights to sound a more virtuous alternative than war and bloodshed. Look at these plays through the prism supplied by Stuart and Brandt, and it's hard to shake the suspicion that these plays are nothing less than the first volley of ammunition fired by males in the successful conquest of civilization from a matriarchal, myth-based society to a patriarchal, logic-based society. (Although it is fascinating to consider that perhaps the woman-as-oppressed-victim theme that this production hammers home at play's end iscontained in the original plays, that perhaps the Greek playwrights intended their works as warnings to men that their course in ancient Athens was leading to female subjugation.)

Whatever the case, Furious Bloodtruly does seem to dramatically show the point outlined by Robert Graves (a man) in "The White Goddess." One of classical Greece's most important intellectual contributions came in its handling of the language of poetry—basically, the sense we have of ourselves. The Greeks finished a process that transformed our language from one of poetic myth bound up in religious ceremonies in honor of the Moon Goddess to a rational poetic language, the Classical, elaborated in honor of Apollo.

The repercussions of that switch are wider than the fact that most of the world today bows before a god with a dick. It also has to do with war and bloodshed, of distrusting the past and intuition, of father-based religions creating father-based social systems, of more than 2,000 years of female oppression.

None of that is stated directly in Furious Blood, but it's definitely between the lines. The problem, however, is that Stuart and Brandt's argument, while fascinating, isn't convincing. That's because Furious Bloodis less a play than a manifesto and less a work of art than a piece of propaganda. This is most clearly seen in the way characters are handled. The women are, for the most part, brave and courageous, wise and virtuous. Even Electra, the "wrathful little bitch" who hates her mother for slaying her father, is an active participant in what befalls her cursed family.

The males, by contrast, are bumbling and stumbling stick figures who hold the reins of power by nothing more than bluster and physical strength. Achilles is a synapse-challenged Chippendale's dolt. Agamemnon, the father of the clan, is a glory-seeking dolt. Kolchis, the prophet, is an ass-kissing dolt. But the greatest feminine fury is unleashed on Apollo (hilariously played by Tim West), a simpering, swishy sun god who whines and pines and nearly shits himself when the three angry Furies hurl bloody tampons at his gold-plated body.

It makes for great camp, but not exactly the most intelligent kind of theater. And that's what's missing in Furious Blood.It's not enough that the Greeks began the process of dehumanizing women into sex objects and domestic chattel. The why is missing. But perhaps that's the point. The play ultimately foregoes logic and articulate discourse for image and poetry.

But what image, and what poetry. At play's end, the young and old Clytemnestra, the raped and abused wife whose choice to murder her husband sets this all in effect, is on trial. And even though Apollo is a ridiculous figure, he's still in control. He asks random males in the audience if they want women who are hot babes or old bags. The audience, of course, responds: hot babes. She rails at him that this is not a story of light, that at this point, the beginning of Western civilization, half of the human race is on the verge of subjugation. For her efforts, both versions of her self are bound to statues onstage, a sign hung on the younger one reading, "Cunt," and a sign on her older self reading, "Bitch."

There the characters stand, motionless, through the curtain call and when the house lights come up. There they stand as the audience uncomfortably realizes the actresses aren't leaving the stage until it leaves the theater. It's a powerful and provocative image. It pulsates with 2,500 years of submerged female fury, leading one to believe the furious blood alluded to in this play's title may not be stored in the bodies of the fictional characters onstage—it might be rushing through the veins of the very real women who created this play.

Furious Blood at Sledgehammer Theatre, 1620 6th Ave., San Diego, (619) 544-1484. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through March 12. $15-$18; $5 off for students.

 
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