REVIEW: Electra (Dream Theatre)

Let Us Sing Now in Praise of Bloody Women

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Dream Theatre presents
  
Electra
  

Written and directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu
at
Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th Street  (map)
through June 6  tickets: $15-$85  |   more info 

reviewed by Paige Listerud

…as though laughing at what was done,
she has found out the day on which she killed
my father in her treachery, and on that day
has set a dancing festival and sacrifices
sheep, in a monthly ritual, “to the Gods that saved her.”
So within that house I see, to my wretchedness,
the accursed feast named in his honor.an

 

Electra by Sophocles
translation by David Grene

Such is the scenario the audience is admitted to, as they step into Dream Theatre’s lobby space. A party is underway in celebration of Agamemnon’s Death Day: the anniversary of the assassination of the Mycenaean king just as he was returning from the Trojan War with Cassandra as his spoils. A bloody skull, a cheerfully  propagandizing Crysothemis (Danielle Gennaoui), and a slightly drunk pretender-king, Aegisthus (Giau Truong), greet audience members and demand their participation in the festivities. The audience gamely—or uncomfortably—keeps up with the improv until the misgivings of the queen, Clytemnestra (Rachel Martindale), lead all to be banished to the swamp. Appropriately, it’s the same dead-end swamp to which Electra (Anna Weller), the noble daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, has been exiled. She lives out her days in forced marriage to a lowly commoner, Pamphilos (Bil Gaines); there, she grudgingly serves food to the lost or abandoned Chorus members from former tragedies in their soup kitchen “at the crossroads.”

DTC 248By all indications so far, Classical lit geeks and devotees of ancient drama can be both inspired and assured with Jeremy Menekseoglu’s creative re-imagining of The Oresteia. His first rendering, Agamemnon (our review ★★★), re-explored the myth with an eye to the impact of captivity on both conqueror and slave—generally, Stockholm Syndrome with an ancient Greek twist. As playwright and director, his next offering in the trilogy, Electra, takes off from Sophocles and makes its eponymous heroine even greater and more central to its story than the old master. On top of which, Menekseoglu pulls in elements from all three tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—both to develop this retelling’s fullest dramatic impact and to create the most feminist Electra ever. The women of his Electra are dangerous daughters and granddaughters of Leda and Zeus. Even when they look their meekest, they should never be underestimated.

Though Aegisthus struck the blow, Electra—not incorrectly—blames her mother for her father’s death. She longs for Orestes’ return in order to act out her long-held desires for revenge. Clytemnestra has carried out her designs on Electra and Orestes via her proxy, Aegisthus, but no one is fooled for a moment about who wears the pants in this kingdom. Besides portraying an ancient Greek catfight of epic proportions, the play is a profound meditation on what happens to the men who become too close to such dangerous, manipulative, and royal femininity. Here the guys are simply overwhelmed and ensnared in their women’s ambitions and machinations—in other words, Electra is a thoughtful, cunning, shoe-on-the-other-foot kind of drama for the modern theatergoer. Is it the return of the repressed Matriarchy? You be the judge.

As an old Classical geek, all I can say is–at last, a truly contemporary and authentic Greek Chorus for modern drama! Here, each Chorus lives on from past tragedies of which they were a part. They are not human yet they are individual enough through each of their fragmented choral remembrances of Oedipus, Hippolytus, and Agamemnon. Here at the crossroads they wait as in limbo for another tragedy to strike; for another opportunity to see noble vengeance executed and noble blood spilt. “Justice” is just one of their eerie mantras. Clearly, this Chorus owes a debt to Surrealism and Dadaism in modern drama. However, what can be relished most DTC 097 about Menekseoglu’s Chorus is how thoroughly they resurrect the Erinyes, or the Furies, from Aeschylus’ original Oresteia. Not even Sophocles or Euripides did as much with their versions of Electra. Welcome back, dear, dark, bloody girls—we’ve missed you.

As for our heroine, Anna Weiler has Electra’s dishonored and frustrated manly ambition down pat. Would that a little more emotional range could be viewed in her performance–although nothing tops the obvious exultation Electra feels when Orestes returns and the Chorus coalesces around her in anticipation of vengeance fulfilled.

Nothing can top her except Mom, of course. Rachel Martindale’s larger-than-life portrayal of the queen of devious queens, Clytemnestra, is nothing short of magnificent and glorious in its reptilian cunning. Her performance truly makes Clytemnestra one of those evil queens you never want to see die–even when you know death is coming.

As for the guys, some might benefit from more character development than others. It really is a women’s play—glittery girl Chrysothemis gets her chance, too, at the battleaxe. Menekseoglu’s Orestes is a slow, hurt boy of a warrior, who was raised in hardship and never received much love. He thinks his sister’s attentions toward him are born of unadulterated truth and affection. But then, neither he nor his sister can see the woe coming for him once he has actually struck the blow against his mother. Fine enough for Truong’s Aegisthus to be a gaudy, sensualist boy-toy; at least he’s fully aware of his purpose and position in Argos. I might wish for a little more teeth to Pamphilos, either in the script or in Gaines’ portrayal of him. But he does get to deliver a moment of comeuppance to Electra, once the deed is done and everything has gone far beyond what she anticipated.

Altogether, this Electra satisfies with its cunning, invention, and witty adherence to Classical tradition. Dream Theatre’s teaser for the final part of the trilogy reads thus:

Led by Persephone and Cassandra, both who hate the very air she breathes, a desperate and battle hardened Electra ventures in to the bowels of Hell to witness a fate truly worse than death itself.”

Hmmm…. Aeschylus confined himself to Orestes’ redemption and, under the wisdom of Athena, the birth of the jury system in Attic law. Who knows if Electra’s journey to the Underworld has anything to do with that?

 

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
 
 
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Starring Anna Weiler, Alicia Reese, Bil Gaines, Giau Truong, Rachel Martindale, Danielle Gennaoui, Annelise Lawson, Molly Gray, Theresa Neef, Alison Faraj and Jeremy Menekseoglu

May not be appropriate for children under 13.

The Final Chapter: Orestes concludes the story on July 8