BWW Review: ELECTRA is Electrifying at Villanova Theatre
Okay, let me think. A woman kills her husband to take up with his relative as a lover, but her son returns from a far country and avenges his father by killing mama, and there's this girl... who is his sister, and nothing untoward happens there, because it's Sophocles' ELECTRA. You thought I meant something Elizabethan? Shame. This is not the unhappy tale of the Thane of Denmark, but of the continuing line of disaster of the Greek House of Atreus, which had an arc more comparable, over its mythic history, to the family of Coriolanus.
Unlike Shakespeare, however, in ELECTRA, Sophocles isn't looking at a male protagonist. Orestes, son of the murdered hero Agamemnon, has been banished by his mother, Queen Clytemnestra, so only his sisters Electra and Chrysothemis are still at the palace with her and with her greedy paramour Aegisthus. Names are crucial in Sophocles' retelling of the myth: Electra means "sparkling" and indeed she bubbles with emotion, mostly the desire to avenge her father, seemingly unflattering in a woman though fine for a man. Chrysothemis, "golden justice," is the rational sister, not happy with the situation but certain that survival means trying to live with it somehow. Orestes, "he who stands on the mountain," has returned secretly from over the mountains, escaping his banishment, to see what has happened. But what he does, and what he becomes, are at Electra's urging.
ELECTRA is at Villanova Theatre now, directed by David Cregan, who presents the Frank McGuinness adaptation of the ancient play. It's short, at roughly 90 minUtes, but has enough drama, twists, offstage-but-present death, and unquenchable rage for any three Shakespearian tragedies. If you think the idea of Greek drama sounds stuffy, you don't know Greek drama, which would be fertile territory for Quentin Tarantino. ELECTRA is frontier justice in a Greek city, a lynch mob of one that becomes two, with the support, though not participation, of a Greek chorus of Electra's friends. In the hands of McGuinness and Cregan, there are moments that the Greek chorus feels more like angry Maenads than a mere chorus of narration.
Kara Krichman, as Electra, is a fiery ball of pure rage; she wants justice, but has no idea how best to direct it. She wants Clytemnestra dead for killing her father, but feels helpless, particularly as her sister Chrysothemis (Rachel O'Hanlon-Rodriguez) and the chorus urge her to be cautious and to try to pretend to fit in. Her vehement protests keep her out of the palace frequently and deprive her of any influence, though she sees Chrysothemis as a sell-out to the new regime, rather than as being on the inside where she may be able to do some good someday. It's a political tension as current as the Sanders-Clinton war; do you fight the system or try to work within it without selling your soul? Krichman and O'Hanlon-Rodriguez keep the tension going admirably; there seems no resolution to the problem, and the sisters fight continually over the issue. Is it better to have a nearly silent place at the table, or to be loud with no table at all?
Megan Slater's Clytemnestra (a Greek name that comes out to be, unsurprisingly, "important courtier") brings the third female viewpoint to the fore. In her mind, killing Agamemnon was completely justified, because she once had a third daughter, Iphegenia, who (in yet another bloody Greek drama) Agamemnon sacrificed in order to bring favorable winds for his military ships. It's very easy to see Clytemnestra's point of view - her husband murdered their daughter, and in modern America he'd be in prison. But he's a Greek king and war leader, so he got away with it. Electra may miss her sister, but she's a believer in the will of the gods and in the thought that if the winds had not arisen, Agamemnon's sailors would have been trapped and all would have perished. For her, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. Clytemnestra sides with family, Electra with societal/military need, and Chrysothemis with trying to keep the peace, to have some kind of balance. But things fall apart; the center cannot hold, and Chrysothemis' voice is ultimately swallowed up by the other two.
Orestes returns, played by Patrick McAndrew as a muscular, emphatic hero who is pretending to be someone else, and spreading rumors that the real Orestes is dead, so that he can scope the situation back in his home city. McAndrew deserves kudos for making Orestes' presence felt strongly in the midst of a play about a primarily female family war. He finds his father's grave, and then Electra - and then asks her what she thinks he should do. It's then that the play goes from a fight over the correct interpretation of Agamemnon's life and death to a true revenge drama. Sparks fly, but although red shows in the stylized Greek set, no blood flows visibly. McGuinness and Cregan keep the primary physical horrors of this tragedy off the stage and in the audience's imagination.
Sophocles forces issues here through women's voices. Is revenge an acceptable solution to motivate justice? What in fact is just when the root is the question of a life for a life? Is our greater duty to our kin or to our country? While the superficial plot similarities to a certain Shakespeare play are obvious, the themes are in many respects far different, since the roots of Sophocles' drama are in the generationally-unfolding workings of a family's enduring curse upon it.
Cregan, utilizing a stylish and stylized minimalist set by Rajiv Shah, keeps McGuinness' adaptation feeling both historical and contemporary at the same time, in, giving one more nod to Tarantino, the same way that DJANGO UNCHAINED felt both period and starkly modern at once. When a play that's well over two thousand years old addresses themes that are still abundantly contemporary, that's exactly what is wanted - both backward reflection and current musing.
Through October 2; visit villanovatheatre.org for tickets and information.