Dynamic ‘Electra’ electrifies audiences

Beer, bathing suits and amazingly bad ’90s music – I’m referring not to some hastily-conceived Saturday night party in Morgan or Wood, but rather to the final scene in the Theatre Department’s recent production of Sophocles’ Electra, which hit the ’62 Center’s MainStage this past weekend. In the creative hands of Sam Gold, visiting director from Juilliard, the production transformed Agamemnon’s palace at Mycenae into that ubiquitous yet under-acknowledged symbol of modern America: the two-car garage.

With its broad workbench housing unused power tools, odd corners stuffed with gardening supplies and concrete floor crowded with Gap and Abercrombie swaddled teenagers, it is a pitch-perfect depiction of a minor suburban enclave within the meta-enclave that the suburbs as a whole have become in our society. Relocating Sophocles’ work to ’90s suburbia is obviously a risky endeavor, yet the potential for such a scheme to inject immediacy and meaning into the ancient text is equally obvious, and Gold and crew generally selected deftly from this hefty bag of new tricks.

The play begins in the wake of freshly-minted war-hero Agamemnon’s death at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra (Liza Curtiss ’10) and her lover Aegisthus (Julian Mesri ’09) who (this being Greek drama) happens also to be Agamemnon’s cousin. Electra (Katie Edgerton ’08) and Chrysothemis (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan ’10), as Clytemnestra’s two surviving daughters, spend large portions of the play debating the proper reaction of a ‘noble daughter’ to the patricide. Electra demands unequivocal justice (read: blood) and an end to her mother’s streaming abuse and harassment. Chrysothemis, meanwhile, plays an acquiescing Chamberlain to her sister’s pugnacious Churchill in a case of mama’s girl versus father’s daughter. She pleads with Electra, “In rough waters, lower the sail is my theory. Why pretend to be doing, unless you can do some real harm.”

Meanwhile, Orestes (Joe Lorenz ’10), the only son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, returns to the ’burbs (that is, Mycenae) for the first time after being sent abroad as an infant by his sister Electra, in order that he might escape the grip of their mother. He reaches the garage accompanied by a pair of young-Republican-looking friends, Pylades (Aron Holewinski ’11), son of Strophius, who took the infant Orestes in, and Paedagogus (Ilya Khodosh ’08), Orestes’ tutor. They conspire to spread a rumor that Orestes has died in a chariot-race, and even present his family with an urn containing his “ashes” in order to gain access to the house (by way of the garage entrance, naturally) and return the favor to the murderers of Agamemnon.

Essentially, this is what the boys (with Electra’s assistance) ultimately accomplish. The murders themselves, though, are little more than formality. The real issues of Electra are moral (questions of honor, justice and expediency), emotional (Electra, one of the most passionate characters in all of theater, forces this emotional intensity on others, at one point piercing her mother with the question: “Never mind if it [the murder] was legal or not – did you care?”) and metaphysical (Electra’s scene of lamentation at the perceived death of her brother is, among many other things, a profound meditation on the befuddling barrier between the living and the dead).

How to capture some of this complexity with Polaroid cameras, step ladders and garden hoses is an intriguing problem that Gold takes up rather boldly. Just prior to the murder of Clytemnestra, for example, the murderers and their accomplices pose for photos with the murder weapon, capturing the ironic mixture of exultant joy and aching fury produced as siblings reunite for the purpose of destroying their mother. Earlier in the production, while trading barbs with Clytemnestra, Electra methodically buries herself in peat-moss with a flower gifted her by Chrysothemis serving as grave-marker. When she flings dirt on her mother, yelling, “Your life is filth,” the ploy lives up to its potential, as we see quite effectively that Clytemnestra will not be able to sidestep the spread of moral pollution unleashed by Agamemnon’s unholy end.
Clytemnestra, played attentively by Curtiss, mocks her mourning daughter upon receiving news of Orestes death, yet seems also to battle internally against the spreading grin upon her face. “There is something grotesque,” Clytemnestra notes, “in having my own evils save my life.” This touch of vulnerability in self-revelation, is nearly enough to endear us to a monster, and is handled very well by Curtiss.
This mother-daughter tête-à-tête is made a true success, however, through the wild intensity of Edgerton as Electra. An aura of seething anger, a biting delivery and an occasional crazed smirk are well-wielded by the senior. She effectively dominates the stage as an uncompromising center of reverent passion in relation to which other characters are either attracted or repulsed.

Edgerton’s strong grasp on Electra’s emotional intensity slips only once; however, it comes in a crucial moment of the play during Electra’s lament. In a speech of tenderness and longing (“Oh my love/take me there/Let me dwell where you are/I am already nothing. I am already burning.”) Edgerton’s performance retains too much of the frenzied anger perfectly appropriate in her earlier scenes. “I am already burning” reflects at this moment not Electra’s blazing anger, but rather the fact that she too feels herself dying – turning to ash.

On the balance, however, Electra’s actors seem to have thoughtfully considered how their tones and mentalities must be tweaked in order to make Gold’s new setting work. Khodosh’s performance as Paedagogus is certainly the clearest example of this thoughtfulness.

Barnett-Mulligan captures the conflicted nature of Chrysothemis well, sweeping nearly seamlessly from fury to self-doubt and back again in her row with her sister, though at certain moments this does have the unfortunate side-effect of giving us a slightly more naïve Chrysothemis than Sophocles may have intended. Lorenz’s rendering of Orestes in the play’s final moments, meanwhile, seems startlingly reserved for a man about to hack his own mother to death.

This dramatic scene is perhaps the oddest of the play, and the real test of how well the new setting has been in re-imagining the classic. After Clytemnestra’ murder, a celebration breaks out on stage: soy milk and beer fall like rain through a haze of Fruit Loops; Electra strips into a bathing suit as Orestes hoses her down, his hands covered with his mother’s blood.

While this climactic moment is well-staged by Gold, the lack of attention he gives to the subsequent murder of Aegisthus seems something like an afterthought. Because he chose to have this final scene take place behind the garage door, it gives the audience no hint of the critical lines exchanged that cast doubt upon the purity of the Orestes’ and Electra’s intentions delivered by Orestes: “You will not die on your own terms/ I will make it bitter for you.” This shade of cruelty and sadism might not have meshed well with the play’s otherwise carnival-like final vision. Perhaps Gold decided that the suburbia he created was already depraved enough.