Near the end of La MaMa’s graphic production of “Pylade,” the barely-clad princess Electra was grappling with the naked prince Pylade, who minutes earlier had been on the floor doing to a small watermelon what should never be done in polite company. But the Great Jones Repertory Company of La MaMa is not aiming to be polite. They are an experimental company whose aim is to interpret Greek tragedy in the most blush-worthy ways.
There are actually three levels in which to take in “Pylade.” On one level, it screams prestige. Electra is being portrayed by the esteemed artistic director of LaMaMa, Mia Yoo, and Pylade by Marko Mandic, a leading actor of the Slovenian National Theater. The director of the production is Ivica Buljan, of the Croatian National Theater, a well-regarded theater artist. Most to the point, it is one of six plays written by Pier Paolo Pasolini, who is far better known as an Italian filmmaker, but who was also a prolific writer of great variety (poems, novels, and journalism, as well as plays.)
On another level, the play is an allegory of modern politics adapted from the story of Pylades, a figure in Greek mythology who was a minor character in tragedies by all three of the great playwrights of Ancient Greece, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Pylades was a close friend and cousin of Orestes who (in some accounts, such as Aeschylus’ Oresteia) urges Orestes to avenge the death of Orestes’ father Agamemnon by killing his mother, Agamemnon’s cheating wife Clytemnestra. Pasolini’s play takes up the story after that, when Orestes (Tunde Sho), having been acquitted by the goddess Athena (Maura Nguyen Donohue) of the murders, returns to Argos to create an Athenian democracy. This delights the citizens of Argos but is greeted with skepticism by his friend Pylade, who feels the new society does not do enough for the poor, and leads a revolution against Orestes. It doesn’t go well.
It is nigh on impossible, however, for the majority of mere mortals in the audience to follow what’s going on in “Pylade,” for two reasons. One is the translation by Adam Paolozza and Coleen MacPherson, which is so arid, awkward and off-putting as to be almost self-parody. (My favorite line, from Athena: “Every heuristic process is consoling, and all my inventions are kitsch.”) One doubts that Pasolini wrote this way in the original Italian (or at least one hopes he didn’t.)
But the real reason it is difficult to follow the political debate that’s supposedly at the heart of “Pylade” is that the approach the director takes is, um, distracting. The play begins with a kind of happy square dancing (the play’s original music is mostly by Michael Sirotta), with the members of the company grabbing members of the audience to join them. This and much of the dance-theater to follow is fun to watch, but hardly seems the stuff of tragedy. Even more watchable, and less tragic, is the sensuality — which is the third level in which to take in the play, and which just about crushes the other two levels. Most of the actors spend much of their time naked. There is an explicit three-way sex scene, which was maybe meant to illustrate the greater freedoms that the citizens of Argos felt under Athenian democracy – but did it matter why?
Then there was an aerobics class the naked men seemed to be taking at one point, which was maybe meant to show Pylade’s peasant warriors in war maneuvers before descending on Argos – but did it matter why?
Pylade’s fornication with a watermelon accompanies a monologue that begins: “How and why has this desire to die returned, to throw myself wholeheartedly into fertilizing anything.”
Of particular note is the gymnastics of company member John Gutierrez, whose roles as listed in the program (“Boy/Foreigner”) don’t get close to describing what he actually does – which is at various times (besides participating in that threesome) to do back flips, rush through the audience, climb up a wooden beam and almost jump out the window, all without wearing any clothing. In this way, he captures the spirit of the play – since the etymology of “gymnastics” is the Greek word for “naked,” which is how Greek athletes competed. With his boyish beauty and brown skin, Gutierrez also resembles some of the actors in Pasolini’s films.
Anybody who has ever seen a Pasolini film (Oedipus Rex, The Decameron, Arabian Nights, The Canterbury Tales) knows that they grow increasingly sexually graphic. At the end, he turned downright ugly; the film “Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom,” was supposedly a political rant against right-wing Italian politicians and the Church, but was full of repellent scenes of cruelty. “Salo” was released in 1975, the same year that Pasolini was brutally murdered, reportedly by a male hustler — but the circumstances surrounding his death, like his life, are rife with controversy.
There is no indication in the script of “Pylade” that the characters need indulge in Dionysian pleasures; it’s not clear what all the nudity and theatrical sensuality has to do with the politics. But, one senses, Pasolini would have been pleased.
Ellen Stewart Theater at LaMaMa
Written by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Directed by Ivica Buljan
Music composer Michael Sirotta, additional music by Yukio Tsuji and Heather Paauwe; lighting design by Mike Riggs, costume design by Ana Savic Gecan. English translation by Adam Paolozza and Coleen MacPherson
Cast:Marko Mandič as Pylade with Great Jones Rep company members Mia Yoo, Perry Yung, Cary Gant, Eugene Chai, Maura Donahue, Valois Mickens, John Gutierrez, and Tunde Sho as Orestes
Tickets: $10 to $25
Nobody under 18 is admitted.
Pylade runs through December 22, 2015