Somehow I got Michelle Ellsworth’s Phone Homer all wrong before even walking in the door of On the Boards. It’s playing there through March 18, and if you can, you should probably sprint over to see it, especially if you have ever asked yourself where the woman’s answer to Woody Allen’s Love & Death is.
This is me before seeing the show: blah Skype blah Iliad blah multimedia blah this could be terrible.
That’s an instance of enantiodromia, which is a Greek word meaning “Mitt Romney on public health care.”
I’m going to compare Ellsworth to Woody Allen–“I gotta tell ya,” she says, and in the same breath quotes Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Iliad, something about war’s butchery–but I think she goes Allen one better, because while Allen is also not just burlesquing Tolstoy, but imagining love and imagining death, Ellsworth is filling up a silence, as well. If you remember Agamemnon and his recalcitrant Achilles, what do you know of how his wife Clytemnestra spent her days at home, those nine long years stretching into ten?
Ellsworth’s peculiar genius is to transplant her Clytemnestra to an alternate universe that she has painstakingly constructed out of virtual media. (In a rare reverse-meta process, Ellsworth has been working on subverting our “real-life” internet as well, through the Burger Foundation and a series of inspirational videos.)
Of course, Clytemnestra listens to playlists on Pandora (samples: “Marriage Reinforcement,” “Hyperventilation,” “Kind of Slutty”), with bands like Charismatic Megafauna and Austerity Measures (the spot-on music is by Dave Willey), but she also spends a lot of time online, Googling and shopping for things like sacrificial hamburgers, the Male Gaze, and Lamentation Tubes, all on pages built out so fully they have their own sidebar ads for even more items (web design is thanks to Max Bernstein, who, with Bob Shannon, also created the video). Daughter Electra, played by Tara Rynders, helps her assemble the more complicated ones.
The story is told via Skype calls with Ellsworth as a petulant, moody Agamemnon; a smarmily on-the-make Aegisthus; Clytemnestra’s sexier, more voluptuous sister Helen; and her morally crochety cousin Penelope.
Just as Woody Allen is a tragedian who is funny, not a comedian in the classical sense, Ellsworth is very pointedly hitting emotional buttons that would make you squirm without the coping-mechanism laughter. Allen is truly scared of both love and death; Ellsworth’s fears are in one sense numberless (her frantic, staccato Skype calls, offering too much white of the eye, are hilarious in their off-the-cuff neuroticism) but beneath it all there’s a very sad story of a marriage falling apart, the useless forestalling, antic grief, and recriminating anger that comes from the suspicion that you, yes, you, have brought death into the world and all our woe.
It’s a bit on the nose to dwell on the implications of updating a story about a decade-long war to include Skyping between husband and wife, and Ellsworth doesn’t. It’s just there, take it or leave it.
Like the Retina display, Ellsworth’s production relies on saturating your perception. The set, designed by Priscilla Cohan, lit by JP Osnes, features a number of benches and columns of varying heights, made from varying materials, that Clytemnestra will fuss with in the name of household management. When fully equipped with her online purchases, with the blinking, hectoring internet towering above, itself controlled by Clytemnestra dancing out letters via a Kinect-y interface, your sense of reality is obliterated by the profusion of fiction.
It’s a constant delight, far too much to take in (Was there something about hamburgers in yogic poses?), and it’s of a piece with the way Ellsworth talks over her other selves in Skype conversations, and lets them talk over her, because she’s really in conversation with them, and for some reason a few hundred people happen to be watching. That is why the show, if hilarious, is also so poignant: Most of what we see and hear, because Clytemnestra is a woman, possesses that hothouse profusion because it is a hidden garden. What is on the mind of women is the original version of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”