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

     
      

REVIEW: Agamemnon (Dream Theatre)


“Agamemnon” is a harbinger of good things to come
 
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Dream Theatre presents:
 
Agamemnon
 
Written/Directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu
at
Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th Street (map)
through April 11th (more info | tickets)
 
reviewed by Ian Epstein 

Though it might fool you, Dream Theatre’s Agamemnon is not nearly as dusty as, judging by its title, it seems.  Artistic Director Jeremy Menekseoglu dons his actor/writer hat in this show as both the playwright and the male lead in the role of the homeward bound Greek title character: Agamemnon.  Menekseoglu’s is a retelling of Agamemnon’s homecoming.  It is told from a decidedly claustrophobic point of view that recasts Aeschlyus’ tragedy as a nautical No Exit played out between Agamemnon and a feisty, fluid-moving Cassandra (Courtney Arnett) who Agamemnon has found agamemnon3molested by one of his own Greek soldiers in the temple of Athena.  He offs the soldier and sets out to seduce Cassandra in the confines and comfort of his General’s berth on board his Greece-bound ship.   

Cassandra is the prophet no one believes or she’s a notable slave or she’s spill-over Trojan war spoils – this is the Cassandra to whom Apollo gave prophecy and the unfortunate condition that no one will believe what she foretells, so she stumbles forward into a future she can plainly predict, only able to retell her sad and tattered past.  Her predicament is made worse by the fact that the sea drowns out her gift and leaves her reeling like just another drunk sailor at sea. In one of the plays intense, narrative monologues (there are several), Cassandra paints the traumatic picture of her six year old self, whisked off by an Apollo with questionable motives.

The play is an examination of Stockholm syndrome – where a captive falls in love with or takes the side of the captor – as much as it’s an exercise in mining one of Aeschylus’ classical dramatic texts for something relevant to audience’s today. And Dream Theatre is big on starting this experience the moment you step through the door.  Members from the Chorus of Cassandra (Anna Weiler, Alicia Reese, and Molly Gray) greet all theatre-goers speaking a heightened language and looking like they’re on loan from the underworld.  They solicit the audience member with mandatory chocolate candies then ask which show they’ve come to see before insisting that they’ve come to see Cassandra and not that other one. 

Giau Truong and Anna Weiler collaborated on the set, and the effort shows in intricate, room-filling attention to decaying, wooden detail that evokes a nautical, underwater feel. Jeremy Menekseoglu also has his imprimatur on the sound design, which illustrates what the inside of a prophet’s mind sounds like with nail-biting, wince-inducing clarity.  At other times, the sound design mimics fuzzy agamemnon6 radio, with American dance music filtering through the air-waves and into Agamemnon’s regal berth.  Agememnon tries to impress his captive audience by dancing a sloppy, drunken Black Bottom.  Unimpressed, Cassandra whips out a performance-perfect Charleston that knocks Agamemnon on his ass.  "Where’d you learn to dance like that?" he asks – "Delphi" she replies.

On the whole, Agamemnon is an odd and oddly fresh performance that hits intriguing notes. Menekseoglu and Arnett both deliver performances admirable in their intensity. It’s intimate and foreign; funny one moment and then frightening the next. It uses melodrama as a technique and not by accident.   But the blend of heightened language with profanity and everyday speech still gets in the way.  The attempts at many of the poetic moments feel overdone, prosaic, and closer to the 2,500 year old source-text than most moments in the rest of the show.  A trait that may make the show a fuller experience for dramaphiles already familiar with the myth that Menekseoglu is molding.

As a first installment, Agamemnon is a harbinger of good things to come.  It will certainly be exciting to watch as Menekseoglu steers the Dream ensemble through the next two plays of his Agon Trilogy. (see performance dates fore next 2 parts of trilogy after the fold.)

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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