Puppetry & tragedy: ‘House of Atreus’ finds fresh way to render savagery of Greek theater

Director Spencer Lott with one of the puppets from his new play, House

Director Spencer Lott faced a bit of an unusual dilemma.

How to portray cannibalism, mutilation and slow-motion murder on stage at the Lawrence Arts Center?

First, some context: Lott was working on his senior thesis in theater at Kansas University. He’d just been to Greece, where he fell in love with Greek plays.

“They’re so fascinating,” Lott says. “There’s so much action, but the horrible irony in Greek theater at the time was that they didn’t show any of it. They’d stand on stage and talk about what had been done and then they would wheel the dead body on.”

Lott decided it was high time that the action go down on stage. Perfect senior thesis project.

“With all the killing and cannibalism – there’s A LOT of cannibalism in these plays – I was thinking, how do you portray that today? How do you reference that without just making it a total slasher?” he says. “And then I thought: puppets!”

Puppets could transform gore into a more palatable viewing experience.

“You can do and say things with puppets that you can’t do with real actors. The audience forgives you,” Lott says. “If the puppet’s manipulated well, the audience will invest life into it.”

But then when you gruesomely kill the puppet, the audience won’t freak out.

“It’s still death and murder and it’s very cruel, but it’s done tastefully and in a way that kind of pokes fun, because they are still just puppets.”

The Zeus

Enter the Zeus Juicer.

This otherwise ordinary kitchen blender epitomizes Lott’s transformation of his Greek tragedy of choice, the “Oresteia” by Aeschylus.

Whereas the original production in 458 B.C. likely alluded to a murder by, say, presenting an ax, disappearing behind a tapestry and re-emerging with a slain body, Lott’s production – called “The House of Atreus” – leaves little to the imagination. Two puppets enter a scene; one puppet leaves as a red smoothie.

“The thing about this show is I tried to make it for a modern college audience,” Lott says. “In my opinion, no matter how good the translation is, these plays need to be seen, kind of like Shakespeare. I wanted to update it, so the entire show has modernizations – like killing each other with a blender.”

Lott wrote all of the dialogue and introduced some of his own plot variations, but Aeschylus’ basic story is still more or less intact, he says. It follows the cursed lineage of Tantalus down through Atreus and Agamemnon.

“They kill and chop each other up and lust after each other’s wives,” Lott says. “They have all these problems, and no one will apologize. The story is about the impact of forgiveness, what it takes to apologize and what you risk if you don’t.”

“The House of Atreus” runs just over an hour and features dozens of puppets – all made by Lott – eight puppeteers, a live musician, a bunch of Greek pillars and various modern appointments (cell phones, TV theme songs, Burger King crowns, etc.).

The play is produced by KU’s Multicultural Theatre Initiative, a group of some 100 students whose mission is to expand the appeal of theater to broader audiences.

Kevin Anderson/Journal-World Photo Spencer Lott is putting together an adult puppet show called The House of Altreus.

Two years ago, the group started with the demographically based understanding of “multicultural” but has since incorporated a broader scope of plays, says MTI president Tosin Morohunfola.

“We want to tell different types of stories rather than the Western, European, middle-class male stories,” Morohunfola says. “We’re very eager to do new works, diverse works. So when Spencer came to me with a puppet show based on a bastardized Greek tragedy, I thought that was right up our alley.”

For his part, Lott thinks audiences will appreciate the play’s unique approach to a classic story. For him, at least, puppets have been a welcome balance between live performance and special effects, he says.

Puppets can serve as “a rejection of all the CGI and computer animation going on. There’s so much fake imagery and cartoon stuff going on, and it’s not a live performance,” Lott says. “The return to puppetry is a way to get back to live performance.”