A tale of revenge and cruelty that falls well within the realm of its Greek tragedy forebears and certain Shakespearean descendantsFrancesca Pagano

Despite its simple construction, short cast list, and a brief run time, the inaugural Cambridge Latin Play’s production of Seneca’s Thyestes captures much of the disturbing essence of its source material—a tale of revenge and cruelty that falls well within the realm of its Greek tragedy forebears and certain Shakespearian descendants. While the play’s early action appropriately sets a tone of foreboding dread, its conclusion sadly misses out on the dramatic payoff the audience so desperately anticipates.

"Atreus’s despicable plans are delivered convincingly by Chini, and a subtle audio cue that plays under his lines adds to the sense of dread for what is about to transpire"

Thyestes’s eerie prologue effectively draws the audience into its troubling world, eliciting the lyric quality of Seneca’s verse, delivered expertly and at times in original song by Coral Dalitz as the show’s Chorus figure. Jem Wickham’s Fury and Ryan Morgan’s Ghost of Tantalus make full use of an offstage hallway to make their entrance, the slowly approaching sounds of footsteps and chains bringing their ascent from the depths of hell to life much more effectively than a simple entrance from stage right or left. While Wickham’s somewhat bewildered delivery detracts from the immersion of this strange and dark scene, her very physical bullying of Tantalus’s Ghost foreshadows the wickedness of the play’s main action. Morgan plays the tortured spirit with great anguish, weighing up the dilemma of sating his unyielding hunger and thirst with food dangled in front of him by the Fury in exchange for visiting death and destruction on his living descendants, Thyestes and Atreus. Inevitably, Tantalus’s Ghost gives in to his visceral desires, devouring grapes with gusto, scattering them on the floor in the first of several food-related incidents that anticipate the play’s awful conclusion.

Somewhat jarringly, Atreus (Michelangelo Chini)—now king and eager to exact revenge on his brother, Thyestes—appears after these spirits in a modern business suit. Wearing a crown of golden laurels, he explains his plot of vengeance to an appropriately horrified Attendant (Michael Breuer) who attempts to dissuade the ruler of his most diabolical plots. The combination of costume, Chini’s Italian-inflected, seething verse, and a shaking right hand á la Adolf Hitler in Downfall (2004), give the impression of a rancorous mafioso or perhaps one of our less-constructive, modern-day politicians, plotting the downfall of a rival. Atreus’s despicable plans are delivered convincingly by Chini, and a subtle audio cue that plays under his lines adds to the sense of dread for what is about to transpire.

Thyestes (Nathaniel Hess) is then introduced, returning from exile with his two children (Francesca Pagano and Sara Popa) at the invitation of Atreus who has offered a share of the throne in a sign of forgiveness toward his estranged brother. Understandably, Thyestes is uneasy about returning, having grown to appreciate his simple life of banishment and not yet fully trusting the motivations of his brother in offering a shared seat on the throne. While this conflict within Thyestes makes logical sense, Hess’s uncertain, back and forth portrayal contributes to a sense of confusion and fosters an annoyance with the character who is seen to be walking into a trap. While a more convincing shift from dubious to trustworthy might have contributed to the tragedy of Thyestes’s fate, Hess’s permanent unease makes the character’s choices less believable. Also confusing is the choice to turn Dalitz’s Chorus into a character—the woman, Aerope, who has been a subject of dispute between the two brothers—for the single scene of reconciliation.

"the impression of a rancorous mafioso or perhaps one of our less-constructive, modern-day politicians, plotting the downfall of a rival"

When Atreus’s plot comes to fruition and his dastardly handiwork is revealed to Thyestes, the audience’s expectations may be met, but the relatively tepid response on stage undercuts the anticipation which has built since the play’s opening scene. Thyestes’s gruesome realization of Atreus’s handiwork does not strike with the hammer blow that it should; the manic glee of Atreus’s plotting is somewhat lacking in the fulfillment of his plans. The crescendo of expectation fizzles, only to be vivified in spurts thanks to the viscerally effective food and drink props and the red reflection of the set’s sole tablecloth and show’s minimal lighting. A more aggressive approach to these technical effects might garner the appropriate bloody despair of the play’s inevitable conclusion, matching the tone evoked by its earliest scenes.


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Overall, however, the actors bring this predictably gruesome story to life effectively—so much so that nearly this whole review has gone by without mentioning the fact that the dialogue is delivered entirely in Latin! When choosing your seat, be sure to ensure visibility of the TV screen located at stage left, for its translated projection is the only way to understand Thyestes’s action for those who don’t fluently understand the dead language. With only a few technical issues, the system works well to translate the characters’ words, and comprehension of the show is a breeze for anyone used to opera or other varieties of sub/super-titled entertainment.

Thyestes remains a poignant reminder of a brutality enjoyed by our literary forebears that seems all too familiar in our more modern, “enlightened” time. Unfortunately, its conclusion lacks some of the gravitas that would make the show stand out among other work meant to recall society’s basest nature, but the strong command of Latin and a few key moments of anticipation make the show an entertaining sojourn for the classically-inclined Cambridge theatregoer.

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