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Andromache, Adapted

Director's rewrite gives Greek classic a modern immediacy.

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Think you've got it tough romantically? Consider young Orestes, who just can't get a break. "I am the model of misfortune," he whines. He's in love with Ermione, who is pledged to Pyrrhus, who is in love with the enslaved Andromache. She, however, still loves Hector, which is problematic because he is dead, having been killed by Pyrrhus' pop Achilles. And Andromache is having a problem getting over the part where Achilles dragged her dead husband around Troy by the heels after besting him in combat.

If that were not enough, Orestes' dating woes are compounded by the whole "Curse of the House of Atreus" problem. It seems that even in the classical world, guys whose grandfathers fed their children to other people tended to raise red flags with women.

For that matter, a man who has killed his own mother is none too attractive either, even if he did it to avenge his father. But the lovely Ermione is willing to look past all that if she can use Orestes against the man she loves and can't have. She's not the only schemer. In CentralWorks' adaptation of Racine's Andromache, the title character will find a way to protect her young son Astyanax, even if it means marrying a man she doesn't want so her son has a new dad, and then killing herself.

About now, the Trojan War scholars among you are wondering, "Didn't Astyanax get tossed off the wall?" According to Euripides, he did. Racine had a story to tell about the brittleness of the French court and the mindless heat of human passions, so he changed things to suit his story, which was based on the Euripides drama of the same name. CentralWorks has modernized the language and taken some liberties with the plot in this revival of its 1994 work, but the company is truer to Racine than Racine was to Euripides in this white-hot story of love and betrayal. This version fits neatly into the larger story of Greeks versus Trojans that has been playing out around the East Bay's theaters for several years.

It takes place after the events of There Will Be No Trojan War and The Oresteia. By killing his mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, Orestes has earned the throne of his father, Agamemnon. Now he's on Lemnos as an ambassador from Menelaus to witness the marriage of Ermione and Pyrrhus. He's also supposed to take Astyanax, the last scion of Troy, back to the Greeks so they can kill the child. Needless to say, nothing goes as planned.

Having a hard time keeping up? The CentralWorks version opens with a near-silent pantomime where all of the characters enter and exit through the space's doors, moaning or crying or scowling per their situation. It's a nice bit of doorplay that winks at the limitations of the space, and it also helps to graphically illustrate who everyone is. The language itself bypasses both Racine's rhymed alexandrines and translator Richard Wilbur's couplets for something simpler and more muscular; while there's nothing jolting or anachronistic about writer and director Gary Graves' text, it's still modern and clean.

The other changes serve to fill out Racine's neglected characters, most notably Pylades. For Racine, he was negligible, serving mostly as Orestes' sole ally and sounding board. Here he has a story of his own, and he's more active (very active: Graves uses the vaguely Monty Python-ish Sean Williford) in moving the play along as he badgers Orestes to help him escape Lemnos.

Alex Klein, who last played Achilles' boyfriend for the company, is back as Achilles' son. He does tortured well, especially when in expressing his love for Andromache he produces a barely audible "I" that says more than all the yelling and flailing he could have used instead. Leontyne Mbele-Mbong plays her Andromache with the same cool self-containment she's shown in her recent turns with Woman's Will and TheatreFIRST. Even at her most abandoned, there is something calculated about Hector's widow.

Meera Kumbhani makes her CentralWorks debut as Helen's petulant daughter Ermione: If Helen's face could launch a thousand ships, this woman's eyes alone could do it. Paul Rodrigues hits the hubris key early and hard as Orestes. Sneering at Pyrrhus' home ("Splendid palace you have here. Very ... modest") and boasting to Ermione about how he offed his mother, Orestes makes it clear that he's doomed to madness, and sooner rather than later.

The interesting thing about Racine is that he made Andromache more about mortal frailty and less about divine manipulation than his Greek antecedents did. Those who saw The Oresteia at the Berkeley Rep a few years back will remember that Athena actually showed up to defend Orestes against the Furies who had come to punish him as a matricide. She's nowhere in evidence here. Nor are there Furies, or anything that suggests that humans are anything less than responsible for their own actions. The eight characters, opulently decked out by costumer Tammy Berlin against the simplest of sets (a collection of Persian rugs, a few amphorae), are active enough in ensuring their own downfalls, which gives this Andromache immediacy and vigor while still feeling larger than life.

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