The Penny Seats Presents ELEKTRA, 7/10-26
"...The audience is being given the gift of live theater. Films do not ask from us in their enacting, a film can merrily play out to an empty room, but the very beauty of live theater is the human exchange. Without that sense, it is dead." - Emily Miller Mlcak, a beloved professor from my undergraduate days at Wabash College.
These words rang in my ears the other week when I crashed a rehearsal of The Penny Seats' summer production Elektra (as adapted by Ann Arbor's own Anne Carson) for a sneak peek of the glorious mayhem that is sure to delight audiences at the West Park Band Shell July 10 - 26.
In the spirit of transparency (oh, how I do hate that overused expression), I am one of the founders of The Penny Seats, and I had featured roles in the company's first slate of offerings: Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), What Corbin Knew, She Loves Me, and Little Me. However, in the interest of reclaiming some balance in my personal life, I stepped off the board last year and am a blissfully unencumbered theatre-goer this summer. I think I'd be pretty lousy in Greek tragedy anyway - musical comedy shtick would likely grate a bit in the world of Sophocles.
"The very beauty of live theater is the human exchange." From what I saw of Elektra's opening scenes, that quality is evident by the bucket-ful. Portraying the title character, Ypsilanti's Emily Caffery, who has appeared onstage recently at both Performance Network and Two Muses Theatre, captures the visceral heartache of a daughter betrayed as her family unravels before her very eyes.
For those unfamiliar with the tragedy, Elektra details the revenge the title character and her brother Orestes exact upon their mother Clytemnestra and step father Aegisthus in retribution for their father Agamemnon's murder. The action takes place in Argos, shortly after the Trojan War.
A student of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Theater Institute, Caffery notes, "This translation is not stuffy. The piece is very recognizably human. It is immediate and real, and I am using the text as much as possible to bring each image to life." Indeed, her Elektra is violent yet empathetic, adrift yet fierce, inconsolable yet laser-focused ... Dorothy Gale by way of Katniss Everdeen.
The yin to Caffery's theatrical yang is Sonja Marquis as Elektra's soccer-mommy-from-hell Clytemnestra. Marquis, a resident of Brighton, has worked at Tipping Point, Purple Rose, Encore, Two Muses, and The Ringwald among many other local theatre companies. "Don't be scared of the Greek mythology. You'll find lots to enjoy," Marquis observes. "Clytemnestra is painted as a villain, but I don't judge her. As an actor, I look for the justification ... Elektra's father killed my child [Iphigenia, sacrificed to the gods before the play begins]. Obviously, Elektra sees it differently, but why wouldn't Clytemnestra be angry?"
Marquis quickly adds, with a hearty laugh, "But don't worry ... I definitely haven't identified with my character's villainy that much!"
Remaining cast members include Samer Ajluni ("Old Man"/"Aegisthus"), Scott Wilding ("Orestes"), DeAnnah Kleitz-Singleton, Sarah Lovy, Katherine Nelson, and Kez Settle. Like Marquis and Caffery, these accomplished thespians have all appeared in venues across Southeast Michigan: Hillberry Theater, Abreact Performance Space, Waterworks, Wild Swan, Planet Ant, and JET.
Director Russ Schwartz along with assistant director JP Hitesman have mined the material for contemporary resonance - familial discord, jealousy, anxiety in wartime, sexism, ageism - and layered in a light amount of cheekiness to keep their audience engaged (and to highlight the darkness that much better). For example, keep your ears open for Ajluni's marvelously witty take on the expository tale of Orestes' "death" by chariot race - imagine Ben-Hur as told by an announcer at the Belmont Stakes.
Ajluni, who calls Farmington Hills home, is savvy to the challenges of outdoor theatre. (Elektra will not only be performed outdoors, but the production will take full advantage of all the space surrounding the West Park Band Shell.) "I once did a show in Central Park, and you get a different feel every show. Focus is key," notes the actor, adding that playing two very different characters "lets you do something far from yourself. ... I love when the Old Man gets to be the voice of the audience, telling the characters, 'Stop giving so many speeches!'"
Lovy, who plays Pylades, a mute boy, chuckles, "I like that they gave me a chance to do drag! Seriously, though, plays like this are important for education. I was introduced at a young age to the classics. That exposure has helped me relate to daily life, family dynamics, and themes. I'm really grateful for that. ... I'm the eyes and ears of the show, and I can't let on what I know or the whole family will blow up"
Settle, one half of the show's Greek chorus, concurs, "We are there to influence the outcome. We have a job to do ... but we are ethereal beings performing a delicate dance between justice and vengeance."
Nelson, Settle's fellow chorus member, elaborates, "Ancient Greece is where theatre started, but it is also a source of great drama with plots as extreme as any summer blockbuster. In our daily lives, we are all so worried about being calm and polite, but a show like this? You can really cut loose."
With such a fun, fizzy, damn erudite cast, Schwartz is grateful for this summertime collaboration and echoes his actors' perspectives. "This show and this cast are so perfect for the space. This is different than anything The Penny Seats have done before, and we wanted to expand our direction a bit."
Hitesman adds, "This is challenging stuff ... very active. The relationships are so intense, like a real family, and working on this reminds you how much the Greek classics have influenced today's theatre, film, tv."
Schwartz concludes, "Carson's adaptation gets to the spirit of what modern audiences will appreciate. It is very immediate and draws you in. If you've been away from Greek drama for a while, this show is a great way to reconnect ... and if you've never seen a Greek tragedy, this is the one for you. Immediate and relatable."
In the play's opening scene, Elektra declares, "I act because it compels." In the context of the play, this sentence means something very different, but these words take on double meaning witnessing this intrepid band of actors exercise their talents. Indeed, they do act because the very doing compels - compels the hearts and minds of both performers and audience. And I, for one, can't wait to see the finished results!
Elektra opens July 10 and runs through July 26. Shows are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7 pm, and tickets are $10 per person. You can purchase tickets at www.pennyseats.org or by calling (734) 926-5346. Patrons may want to may want to bring blankets or camp chairs to sit on, as the tiered seating around the pavilion does not have back support. The company has partnered with a local caterer to have food on-site, and picnicking (beginning at 5:30 pm performance nights) is encouraged.
Written by: Roy Sexton