Staging Vengeance


With her latest play, Israeli theater director Rina Yerushalmi has put herself in esteemed literary company.

"Mythos," Yerushalmi’s adaptation of Greek legend of the House of Atreus, follows in the tradition of Aeschylus, Euripides, Hugo von Hofmannstahl and Jean Paul Sartre, among others, who saw in the tale’s cycle of bloody revenge universal themes ripe for exploration.

Each of those creative writers played to his own time, Yerushalmi said. "That’s why I felt free to do it, though I’m not a playwright," she told The Jewish Week at a Midtown hotel as images of our time blazed on CNN in the background.

In Yerushalmi’s vision, which draws directly from Greek classics and modern sources, the story of a family caught in a spiral of vengeance offers a pregnant metaphor for the contemporary Middle East.

"The children begin to see how their lives have been totally: not even affected, it’s even more than that," said Yerushalmi, who has witnessed more than five decades of bloodshed in Israel. "Their lives are totally destroyed by their past, by their family" yet they see no alternative to "blood cycle and revenge."

Itim Theatre Ensemble, the Tel Aviv-based company Yerushalmi founded 14 years ago, will have its Manhattan debut next week when it performs the U.S. premiere of "Mythos" at the Lincoln Center Festival. Itim last played New York with its first production, "Hamlet," at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1992.

In praise of Yerushalmi’s "spectacular new version of the Oresteia," the Jerusalem Post said in August that the play "goes beyond the original in portraying the horrible futility of man’s obsession with killing."

The story of the House of Atreus begins with the progenitor Tantalus, who was punished (literally "tantalized") by the gods for his arrogance. Successive generations carried out their own cursed existences: a grandson, Atreus, feeds his brother’s own children to him. Atreus’ son Agamemnon returns victorious from the Trojan War only to be killed by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. Agamemnon’s death leaves his children Orestes and Electra duty-bound to avenge his murder, despite the costs.

Performed by Itim’s 14-member ensemble of actors, the two-and-a-half-hour production centers on the siblings. Orestes and Electra are compelled to commit matricide and then to relive in anguished visions the familial events leading up to the deed.

The last of three acts brings Orestes and Electra to the ravaged soil of a vanquished Troy, where they imagine their own trial and sentence themselves to exile and barrenness.

Yerushalmi conceived of "Mythos" specifically as a response to current events in Israel. But she said "Mythos" is not intended as a statement or prescription.

"You see, theater is not a political newspaper," she said. "Which means that you can never state a final opinion. It’s a proposition."

In "Mythos," Yerushalmi’s proposition is simple. "If want to stop a blood cycle, you have to stop, full point," she said with the hint of a British accent. "You cannot wait until it will be just. It’s never going to be just."

A former dancer with piercing eyes and perfectly shaped eyebrows, Yerushalmi was born in Afula and raised in Haifa. She turned to theater after her army service and studied at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. She received her MFA from Carnegie Mellon University and taught at New York University, returning eventually to Israel.

In 1989, she founded Itim, in affiliation with the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv. The theater company is one of the few ensembles in the world that has the same actors training together year-round.

A demanding artist recognized as one of Israel’s most important directors, Yerushalmi set out to "investigate" effective theater, allowing each play to determine how it is acted and staged.

In her award-winning 1989 production of "Hamlet," for example, actors faced a single row of seats to create a sense of one-on-one interactions. "The Bible Project" of 1998, which played at the Kennedy Center and in San Francisco, had no stage. The actors emerged from the audience and spoke their archaic lines in a conversational tone.

In keeping with Yerushalmi’s mission, "Mythos" is performed in a setting dictated by the legend’s enduring themes.

The "stage," which was designed by architects, not set designers, is made of 150 moveable wooden boards. "We started with 600, but we lowered it to 150, because that in itself is 4 tons of scenery," Yerushalmi said.

Outdated carousel slide projectors provide the backdrop for the ancient myth, re-enacted in the midst of the Milky Way, a meteor shower or a vast metropolis.

"You can see yourself again," she said, "not as an isolated case in the universe, but as part of a development, which to me is more interesting."

"Mythos" will be performed a La Guardia Drama Theater, 65th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, (212) 721-6500. Tues.-Sat., July 8-12, 8 p.m.; Sun., July 13, 3 p.m. $55."Mythos" is performed in Hebrew with simultaneous English translation via headsets.

Rina Yerushalmi discusses the work at JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave., (646) 505-5708, on Thurs., July 10, 6 p.m. Free to "Mythos" ticket holders.