At best the revival of a classic stirs our sensibilities much like a remarkable piece of music. A chord is struck that reverberates from antiquity to the present, reuniting us with the universality of our most human emotions. At its worst a classic only manages to transport us as far back as high school, where a six-pack of Jolt cola couldn't stave off drowsiness the night before a test on The Iliad. New Theatre's production of Electra lies somewhere between these two extremes. It accomplishes the feat of being neither melodramatic nor laborious. At times it even lights up the sky with its energetic alchemy. But it fails to electrify on a consistent basis.
Electra (played by Lisa Morgan), the embittered sister of Orestes (David Mann) and Chrysothemis (Tanya Bravo), has been condemned to a life of slavery. She also has sentenced herself to a life of mourning the death of her father, who was murdered by her mother, Clytemnestra (Yolandi Hughes), and her mother's lover, Aegisthus (Robert Strain). Her only hope is that Orestes will return to the city of Argos to avenge their father's death. Unbeknownst to Electra, Orestes has sent his servant (Wayne E. Robinson, Jr.) to Argos to tell Clytemnestra that Orestes is dead. In this way Orestes can then arrive unexpectedly to avenge his father's murder.
Director Rafael de Acha made a smart decision by choosing Frank McGuinness's Tony-nominated script for the South Florida debut of Electra. McGuinness has extricated the antiquated and obtuse dialogue of the original translation and replaced it with a clear, well-honed text. Not only is the language accessible and tuned to the contemporary ear, it retains the elegance of the original play. Electra's opening speech possesses the mellifluous lyric of a Shakespearean sonnet, minus the sing-songy rhyme scheme:
"Divine light/Sweet air/Again hear/My pain.
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Divine light/Sweet air/Again hear/My pain.
Have you not witnessed when morning breaks/My heartbreak, my heartbreak?"
Sophocles gave many a demanding role to women in plays such as Antigone and The Women of Trachis. His greatest character drama, however, is Electra. When the playwright Aeschylus treated this story of revenge, he was concerned primarily with the ethical issues of the blood feud. Sophocles dismisses the ethical question and instead addresses character: What kind of woman is Electra that she would want so desperately to murder her own mother?
Electra is the female Hamlet unbridled. Lisa Morgan's energy and rancor is boundless. From the moment she enters the stage until the end, her Electra is like a cannon that has been fired at the heed of a battle call. Filled with bitterness, grief, and rage, Electra is a trajectory of emotions that cannot be slowed by her sister's reason, her mother's wrath, or her nurse's compassion and camaraderie. Unfortunately there is little modulation in the level of intensity. Be it anguish, anger, or accusations, the emotions almost always are delivered with the same full-throttle speed and fervor. Granted de Acha and Morgan steer the character away from the most obvious and perilous pitfall -- unrestrained hysteria and melodrama -- but they also never delve into the less obvious and subtler reaches of the character's heart. Like Hamlet, Electra is trapped in her own neuroses. Unlike Hamlet, she is not hiding her grief from anyone or speaking in double-entendre. She has swallowed the bile of her own feelings and is interminably and openly bitter for it. As she tells her mother, it is against her own will that she grieves as she does: "I know what I'm doing's wrong. It goes against my nature. But you are malign; you are cruel. You force me to act against my own will." This is a missed opportunity to let other psychological nuances creep into the role of Electra.
Yolandi Hughes is a disturbing presence as the regal and maniacal Clytemnestra, again reminding us of those terrifying scenes between Hamlet and his mother. Her moments of compassion as a mother only lend more dimension to Hughes's portrayal of a murderess. The actress's presence is so ominous in her jewels, heavy black eye makeup, and slow, deliberate speech, we believe equally her compassion and her cruelty. Kimberly Daniel as Electra's nurse takes on the role of chorus and friend, caretaker and accomplice. Daniel covers all this emotional territory seamlessly. As the more reasonable sister, Chrysothemis is more detached and rational than Electra. She reminds Electra that they are not men but women, and they must learn to survive as women do, behind a deceptive veneer of passivity and submissiveness. Chrysothemis is resigned not to mourn as her sister does so that she may survive within the confines of her new family. Yet at times, such as when she arrives glowing and breathless from her father's grave, having seen what she thinks is a sign of Orestes' return, we see an incredible vulnerability and youthful naiveté. Bravo also exercises a control that eventually reveals her character to be as hopelessly caught in the ethical trappings of this crime as her sister. All three supporting actresses do a splendid job of broadening the play's emotional and psychological scope.
Not so the men. Robert Strain plays the role of Aegisthus, the new husband of Clytemnestra, almost casually, without developing a regal stature. Strain doesn't have the carriage and resonance of a king or a power-hungry, conspiring murderer. Likewise both David Mann and Wayne E. Robinson give performances that are not particularly arresting.
Michelle Cumming's set design tries to take on too much of the emotional burden of the play. Instead of letting the stage be a canvas on which the action and emotions can evolve organically through the actors, the huge, brown, craggy rocks that are strewn about obstruct the play's emotional resonance. The main character and her dramatic situation are sufficiently dark without them. One starts to sense an Emily Brontë-Wuthering Heights creepiness sink in that's too imposing for such a small venue. One of the most compelling things about Morgan's Electra is that she is almost as much creature as she is creation. The visceral grief has returned Electra to the primordial soup of existence. She roams around in rags, touching the sand and rocks around her with the carnal appetite of a cave dweller. To have her thrashing about and mired on a stage that looks like a prehistoric dwelling is hyperbolic and distracting.
De Acha has formed an interesting partnership with experimental sound artist Gustavo Matamoros. Matamoros's organic combination of the musical saw, the rubbing of glass, and various tones of bells lends an earthy yet otherworldly feel to the play. His subtle control of sound keeps the effects from dictating the emotions of the play or the shifts in tone. The result is both mysterious and compelling. This mixture of the classical and the experimental is an encouraging reminder to South Florida artists and performing-arts groups of the abundance that can be reaped from cross-genre collaborations.
Luckily de Acha's commitment to educating audiences is as strong as his commitment to reviving the classics. Why pretend theatergoers remember this stuff from college? The play's program is equipped with biographies, a synopsis, and a genealogy chart, and several performances have been accompanied by discussions with local scholars. After more than a decade at the tiny storefront venue in Coral Gables, which seats 75, New Theatre will move to a facility that will increase its current size by 50 percent at the old Astor Art Cinema, also in Coral Gables. Although this production of Electra has its flaws, it still manages to leave audiences hungry to see what jewels New Theatre will unearth in the future.
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