There’s no question that Michelle Ellsworth is a genius at theatrical production. The Boulder, Colorado-based performance artist is also very, very smart and both talents are on ample display in Phone Homer, Ellsworth’s wacky take on the story of Clytemnestra.
According to Greek legend (or history depending on your point of view) Clytemnestra was the wife of Agamemnon, who led the Greeks to victory over the Trojans. During the 10 years that Agamemnon was away fighting, Clytemnestra took a lover, Aegisthus. Upon Agamemnon’s return with a concubine, Clytemnestra killed him. There’s much more to the story but that’s as far as Ellsworth takes it over the 60 minutes in which she plays the roles — either live or on video — of Clytemnestra, Clytemnestra’s alter ego, Agamemnon, Aegisthus, her sister Helen (yes, that one), and Penelope, wife of Odysseus.
Clytemnestra’s tale as recounted in the previous paragraph is far more coherent than Ellsworth’s script and therein lies one of the problems with Phone Homer. Ellsworth’s intent is clearly to convey the emotional truth at the core of Clytemnestra’s story rather than to retell the literal narrative found in The Odyssey or Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy. To do so, she creates a frenetic mashup of web surfing, Skype calls, and fragmented acting out of subservience, flirtation, anger, frustration, bewilderment, and despair.
Her words come so fast and furiously, and the two huge computer screens that take up most of the stage flash fake websites and pop up ads so quickly, it’s impossible to take in everything happening on stage.
The net effect of Ellsworth’s craziness is a cosmic “Whew!” when Phone Homer ends. There is a huge amount of stürm und drang interspersed with razor-sharp visual and verbal wit, but Ellsworth is too skillful at conceptual performance art for her own good. What remains hours after Phone Homer is a lingering sense that one has just seen something of striking visual power, but lacking in the emotional depth that Ellsworth presumably possesses.
The other problem is that Ellsworth’s Clytemnestra is an emotional Janey-one note. From the moment she appears on stage, Ellsworth screams her words at us. Regardless of whether she’s supposed to be feeling betrayal, lust, fury, or despair, this Clytemnestra is capable of only one emotion — hysteria. Eventually, Ellsworth’s ranting becomes tiresome (though to her credit there’s enough going on with the computer screens that it’s easy to avert one’s eyes from her rampaging).
Despite these weaknesses, there are compelling reasons to see Phone Homer. Ellsworth has assembled a brilliant production team — most notably Art Director and Web Designer Max Bernstein, who shares video credits with Bob Shannon — and her interactions with the two computer screens take technology to a new level.
The team has mocked-up a grab bag of fake websites, projected on the screens, that the shopaholic Clytemnestra uses to order a nonstop stream of products — mostly but not exclusively different kinds of hamburgers — and seek help for her emotional problems. In a burst of inspired physical comedy, Ellsworth uses her sweeping arms like a computer mouse, searching the web and then bringing up sites with the snap of her finger.
One of the funniest send-up sites features a TED talk on hyperventilation in which streaming video shows a female speaker (like all the other characters, Ellsworth herself dressed up in different gear) sounding very pretentious. There’s so much going on elsewhere on the stage, aurally and visually, that it’s easy to miss hearing the speaker admit that she’s never actually experienced hyperventilation.
Another mock website is labeled “Lamentation Dance With Tubes,” a send-up of Martha Graham’s masterpiece “Lamentation,” and “Lamentation Dance Without Tubes,” featuring Ellsworth worming her way through non-tube costumes. The joke is even funnier if you know that Graham choreographed her own version of the Clytemnestra story.
“Outfits That Solve Problems,” “How To Repress Your Emotions” and “How To Execute A Murder Dance,” are just a few of the other mock sites, which are interspersed with popup ads for things like colorful clothes (“Tired of Wearing Black?” the ad asks) and hamburgers from made-up vendors with Greek names.
It’s impossible to talk about any Ellsworth production without mentioning hamburgers. It’s no exaggeration to say that Ellsworth is obsessed with what might be the unhealthiest food the U.S. has ever produced, despite the fact that the lithe dancer looks like she’s never eaten a bite of one in her life. Someone with far more training in psychology might make some sense of this fixation, but I have to admit that its meaning and dramatic power escape me. Still, it is amusing to see the names of hamburger restaurants Ellsworth comes up with for Phone Homer and the hamburger websites her team has created for her to order from.
One production element that doesn’t work well in execution is the Skype calls with the other characters in Clytemnestra’s drama. The calls with Agamemnon, Helen, Aegisthus, and Penelope fall somewhat flat despite Ellsworth’s tour de force turns in all the roles. She is able to move seamlessly between genders and personalities, but the script doesn’t provide particularly interesting conversations. Ellsworth is such a commanding presence in person that the videotaped Skype callers pale in comparison.
The only other live performer in Phone Homer is the young woman who brings in the stream of products that Clytemnestra orders. It’s not until the very end that she is identified as Electra, Clytemnestra’s daughter.
In another sophisticated joke, Electra is the only character in Phone Homer besides Clytemnestra who appears only live, never electronically. This is a neat play on the very word Electra, which in Greek means amber and is the derivation for the word 'electricity.' The ancient Greeks knew that, when rubbed, amber generates light, a concept that Thomas Edison used in his early experiments.
Of course, without Edison we wouldn’t have computers or all the other technical devices Phone Homer uses. And without those devices, Michelle Ellsworth and her collaborators wouldn’t be able to create such an absurdist, engaging evening of theater.
If you go: 'Phone Homer,' On the Boards, 100 West Roy Street, through March 18. Tickets $25 and are available at the box office, by phone 206.217.9888, or online at www.ontheboards.org
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