Review: Electra and Orestes (20% Theatre Company)

     
     

A bloody goth industrial mess

     
     

Laura Deger, Sophie Gatins, Lindsay Le Tigre Bartlett in "Electra and Orestes", adapted by Melissa Albertario. Photo credit: Laura Olesda

      
20% Theatre Company presents
  
Electra and Orestes
   
Written by Sophocles
Adapted and Directed by Melissa Albertario
at Evanston Arts Depot, 600 Main, Evanston (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Revisions of Classical Greek drama perpetually crop up in Chicago’s theater scene—a testament to their power to reach into the core of the human psyche and provoke renewal of perspective. Emotionally impacted by the Columbine Massacres, playwright and director Melissa Albertario sees a dramatic framework in the story of Electra, addressing how youth react to violence, upheaval and emotional anguish. Unfortunately, her newly minted adaptation, Electra and Orestes, produced by Twenty Percent Theatre Company at the Evanston Arts Depot, is so premature for the stage and so rankly amateurish, it runs the danger of provoking more laughter than empathy for the plight of its title characters.

Mindy Yourokos and Jackelyn Normand in 20% Theatre's "Electra and Orestes". Photo credit: Laura OleskaFirst, there’s the dialogue, which comes across more like leaden imitation than updated reinterpretation or even homage. Incorporating fragmented lyrics from Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and Radiohead’s “Creep” into the play’s choral sections more often than not tinges the production with unintentional silliness.

Add further the conceit that Electra (Mindy Yourokos) is a goth girl warring against her sinister mother Clytemnestra (Clarissa Yearman) and her boy-toy king Aegisthus (Don Markus), not to mention constantly assailing her conformist, goody-two-shoes sister, Chrysothemis (Jackie Normand), for accommodating them and you have a feeble attempt at trying to plaster modern domestic relationships onto an ancient epic is, well, more truly epic than the modern relationships. From the get-go, Electra and Orestes has no sense of proportion; it only follows that its characters will go on and on with their conflicts and protestations, with no sign of any editorial sense of where and when to cut.

Finally, Ashley Ann Woods’ set design looks like the goth/industrial aesthetic threw up all over stage in a desperate attempt to be gritty and hardcore. Top it off with clumsy and often needless projections and what you have is a theatrical mess.

     
A scene from Twenty-Percent Theatre's "Electra and Orestes" at the Evanston Arts Depot. Photo credit: Laura Oleska Mindy Youroukos and Claire Yearman in 20% Theatre's "Electra and Orestes".  Photo credit: Linda Oleska
Sophie Gatins in 20% Theatre's "Electra and Orestes". Photo credit: Linda Oleska Zack Meyer and Mindy Yourokos in 20% Theatre's "Electra and Orestes" Laura Deger in 20% Theatre's "Electra and Orestes".  Photo credit: Linda Oleska

What, then, can be salvaged from an impossibly immature production like this? Well, both Zack Meyer and Benjamin Johnson decently acquit their roles as Orestes and Pylades, respectively–even as their opening scene has them loadin’ up with guns and ammo to assail the House of Atreus. Clarissa Yearman packs some punch as good, old, wicked Clytemnestra, although she looks like Ivana Trump after the Eighties have thrown up all over her (costuming Betsey Palmer).

As for the heroine, Electra, I really wish I could say I cared about her emotional distress and compulsive tendency to engage in self-cutting—but the sluggish dialogue, the drawn out and pointless arguments with Chrysothemis and the Chorus’s ridiculous headdresses make it impossible. Nice goth gown, though. Mind if I borrow it for my next night out at Neo?

  
  
Rating:
  
  

Lindsay Le Tigre Bartlett, Laura Deger, Sophie Gatins in 20% Theatre's "Electra and Orestes". Photo credit: Linda Oleska

All photo by Laura Oleska

        
        

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REVIEW: Electra (Dream Theatre)

Let Us Sing Now in Praise of Bloody Women

 DTC204

   
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
 
 
DTC1 DTC204

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: AjaxAntigone (The State Theatre)

State Theatre brings guts and talent to successful production

Ajaxantigoneproductionstill1of11

The State Theatre presents:

AjaxAntigone

By Sophocles
Adapted by
Tim Speicher and Ross Matsuda
Directed by Tim Speicher
at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 621 W. Belmont
through April 3rd
(more info)

review by Barry Eitel

The men and women that put together The State Theatre, a company that delivered their first ever production just last year, radiate ambition. It is ballsy choice for a brand new theatre company to tackle anything Greek—the Classics are some of the best-known dramas of all time, and they can really, really suck if done poorly. But as if Production stills from the play "Ajaxantigone" putting up just one millennia-old play wasn’t a big enough risk, adapter/artistic director Tim Speicher mashed-up two Sophoclean tragedies. With the straightforward title AjaxAntigone, Speicher’s amalgamation shreds up and stitches together SophoclesAjax and Antigone. With anything this daring there is bound to be hiccups and missteps, but the State’s bravado pays off and solidifies the company as a powerful new voice in Chicago theatre.

This isn’t some ancient version of those crossover episodes of CSI where one team travels to another’s city; Ajax never officially meets Antigone. Both stories are told concurrently, with a lot of thematic overlap. Antigone, if you recall, is one of the first obstinate teenagers in literature, disobeying the laws of the king in order to bury the body of her dishonored brother. Ajax is a more obscure play that revolves around the warrior Ajax, hero of the Trojan War. Basically, he slaughters some innocent livestock in a stroke of madness and then has to deal with the consequences. Speicher’s creation cuts, pastes, deletes and inserts from Sophocles. Never skimping on the physical, the State’s production plays out Ajax’s battle with the sheep, something that would never be shown in Mediterranean amphitheaters. Teiresias is cut from this Antigone. Also, Speicher’s version plays up Antigone’s story and plays down Creon. This is a sharp divergence from Sophocles’ play, where Creon is the real focus, not the titular teenager.

The grand Greek chorus is pared down to just one woman, the sparky Sarah Sapperstein, who does a majestic job of navigating us through both plays as well as portraying some of the smaller characters. Both plays are performed by an ensemble of six, with a lot of doubled-casting. Kyra Morris is a rich Antigone, stoic and proud—she makes the character a tragic hero. Chris Amos does double duty as Odysseus and Creon with charm and passion. Mark Umstatd’s shirtless Ajax overpowers the space with his yelling. This mars several scenes and draws the audience out of the play.

Ajaxantigoneproductionstill10of11 Production stills from the play "Ajaxantigone"
Production stills from the play "Ajaxantigone" Production stills from the play "Ajaxantigone" Ajaxantigoneproductionstill9of11

Speicher’s treatment of both plays is layered and lyrical, although there are missteps. African-American spirituals are used throughout, but they do nothing but distract from the stories on-stage. Kylie Edmonds’ costumes are appropriately distinguished, while the set is less complete. The scenic design consists of two mobile boxes that are used to create a myriad of environments among walls draped with white cloth. The abstraction is great, but the boxes beg more aesthetics and less functionality. And although Mbo Mtshali’s choreography is striking and spot-on much of the time, the production also has sloppy moments: actors get too close to the audience, and in one fit of madness, the barefoot Ajax accidentally stepped on the “blade” of his “sword” (made of wood). Forgivable offenses, but one has to think that they could be avoided, given the precision of the beautiful and demanding choreography.

The State’s audacity is evident in all aspects of the production. On opening night, they actually encouraged the audience to flip open their phones and tweet, text, snap, and update away (although I think Patti Lupone’s thoughts on the subject were still ingrained in most people’s heads). The State Theatre presents itself as bold, new, and edgy—AjaxAntigone proves that the company is good as well.

 

Rating: ★★★

Production stills from the play "Ajaxantigone"

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