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Its a 2,400-year-old story, but soundtrack is right now
Young Orestes agonizes over his fate: condemned to death by stoning for murdering his mother. Waterfowl quack and honk in the distance, and the sandals of a passing citizen slap against a paved walkway.
Then comes the sound of a skateboarder grinding down a nearby hill. If the pre-Christian mood is broken, it's only the beginning.
Even after a morning that threatened rain, more than 125 people have gathered at Reed College's Cerf Amphitheatre to watch a Classic Greek Theatre of Oregon performance of 'Orestes,' which opened last weekend.
But in this production, the Greek chorus dances to some fairly elaborate choreography and is powered by a recorded soundtrack that features spare indie rock guitars and drums.
Eurypides created the 2,400-year-old play, but the soundtrack was provided by Sarah Dougher, a Portlander best known as a recording artist and performer who has released several albums and once toured with Sleater-Kinney. She teaches at a rock and roll camps for girls and works with homeless teenagers.
Not that Classic Greek Theatre's Artistic Director Keith Scales knew any of that when he met her. The two crossed paths via the Oregon Council for the Humanities' Oregon Chautauqua, a program that makes scholars and other speakers available to nonprofit organizations.
'Sarah is an amazing double character,' Scales says, ' a punk rocker and also a classicist.'
As 'Orestes' unfolds, scenes are followed by a coda in which the all-woman chorus summarizes the developing plot in song and movement.
'They restate, they reiterate and they tell back story,' Dougher says. 'Because the action of the play is the end of a long series of crappy outcomes, we need clarity and we need connection with them.'
The chorus does not always seem essential to the narrative, but overall, the work of Dougher and choreographer Andrea Harmon helps put the audience in the right frame of mind for the surprisingly mischievous deus ex machina the playwright has in store.
Scales says 'Orestes' was the right place to get experimental with contemporary touches, because while Eurypides could turn out sober dramas, he also viewed the world with irreverence.
'Eurypides was the bad boy of Greek theater,' he says.
The play's denouement, Scales says, brings elements that are 'straight out of every cop show on TV.'
As Classic Greek Theatre's 20th season got under way, Scales contemplated ways to reach young audience members, many of whom arrive by the busload during a monthlong run of performances at Reed and, later, downtown's West End Theatre.
'I started to think of the idea of punk rock music and 'Orestes,' which is about a teenager. It seemed like it was a natural marriage,' he says. 'We wanted to remove all the obstacles between the kids and the play.'
When he went in search of someone to create an innovative soundtrack, Scales didn't have to look far. Dougher, whose album, 'Harper's Arrow,' is based on Homer's 'The Odyssey,' and who teaches Greek mythology at P:ear, a nonprofit that serves homeless teens, had expressed interest in a collaboration.
The classics stay current
The 39-year-old Dougher, an adjunct professor of women's studies at Portland State University, knew that attempting to re-create a perceived historical reality in the production could have ended up both uninteresting and unrealistic.
She says the musical side of such plays likely would have been a combination of singing and chanting accompanied by flute and lyre. But even that is not a certainty. 'There are no stage directions in ancient Greek texts,' Dougher says.
'I'm not interested in doing fake-o historical renditions of Greek traditional music. I don't believe in fidelity because it's an imagined project,' she says. 'I'm more interested in the way that we can make this our own.
'The majority of audiences for this play are high school kids,' she says, 'and it's really important to find a way to connect with them.'
Scales admits the electrified soundtrack was 'jarring' to him initially, but he had taken some liberties himself in adapting the play and agreed to some back and forth with Dougher.
'I very much enjoyed the laboratory aspect,' he says, 'poking around and finding what the playwright's intention was.'
For her part, the talented Dougher is grateful for a new creative avenue, something she says Scales provided at some risk. Classic Greek Theatre's supporters, many of Greek descent, have been known to be tradition-minded about its productions.
'Keith really gave me an amazing opportunity,' she says. 'Now that I've done it, I'm really interested in writing music for theater. I think Portland's a good place to do some experimenting with this.
'The classics are very relevant,' she says. ' 'Harper's Arrow' is based on 'The Odyssey,' but it has to do with war and its aftereffects, the way that the violence transfers through into the civilian world. It's important for contemporary audiences to see how the issues of violence in a family have been a human problem forever.'
When: 4 p.m. FRIDAY, SATURDAY and SUNDAY, noon Thursday, also noon Friday, Sept. 22, and Sept. 27-29, through Oct. 1
Where: Reed College, Cerf Amphitheater, 3203 S.E. Woodstock Blvd., 503-258-9313