“I call upon Persephone and the Furies: bring back my brother. My life is a river, it floods with grief….”
Seattle Shakespeare’s Electra, in Sophocles’ play of that name, tells it like it is and screams and wails her raging sorrow. No holds barred, she bears her ravaged soul, her desperate anguish, her longing to reunite with the one being who can help her assuage her obsessive grief over the horrific murder of her father by her mother and her lover, by murdering them. It sounds like bad soap opera festering at Wagnerian pitch, but Sophocles’ savage tragedy, written several millenia past, transcends such skanky gutter-crawling. A bare-chested, au courant adaptation by Irish playwright and medieval scholar Frank McGuinness transports the classic’s relationships and events to modern-day vernacular and ties them to broad universal experience while emphasizing the intensely personal, familial. Directed for Seattle Shakespeare Company by Sheila Daniels at the Center House Theatre, the SSC production merges ominous suspense with ritualized grieving and bloodlust, squeezing every last tortured drop of the play’s lifeblood onto the stage, into the receptive minds and senses of an enthusiastic opening night audience. Electra – illumination.
As the audience strolls to their seats they pass by Electra (Marya Sea Kaminski), kneeling and keening in a small cubicle to the side of the house entrance. She crouches back to audience, framed dimly by flickering candles. It makes a frightening, morbidly intense and entrancing sight. A bald-faced voyeuristic moment, Electra’s unscripted presence defines the play’s tone as the passing audience peers momentarily into her most private grief. This is a personal agony to witness, one about to explode with vengeance; find comfort, resolution in it if you dare. She seeks peace at any cost. Any cost.
Playwright McGuinness has written multiple new versions of classic dramas, including works by Ibsen, Chekov and Euripides. He created this fast-playing 90 minute action version of Electra for a London West End production in 1998, which then moved to Broadway where it received significant acclaim. The distinguished Zoe Wanamaker starred in both versions in the title role. McGuinness contends that the recent violent civil war in the Balkans inspired his version of Sophocles’ revenge drama. It’s a palpable conceit with Seattle Shakespeare’s gritty, tight-strung staging.
The eclectic mixture of modern and classical aspects in set, costume and movement works effectively for the most part to maintain convincing focus on parallel realities. (Andrea Bryn Bush – scenic design; Pete Rush – costume; Jennifer Havlin – dance, and Gordon Carpenter – fight choreography). Two huge Greek columns, wrapped in chain link fencing, flank the upstage acting area; more chain link, hung in irregular torn chunks, defines the upstage entry hall to the house of murdered king Agamemnon, Electra’s father. Soft muted lighting infuses the space with a cinema verite gloom, while the upstage hallway is lit harshly by a string of bare light bulbs (Andrew D. Smith – lighting design).The Servant (Todd Jefferson Moore), Orestes (Darragh Kennan) and his companion Pylades (Tim Smith-Stewart) enter the first scene attired to suggest modern paramilitary and stride about in modern guise. No hint of declaiming or unnatural posing. Following in kind with contemporary, naturalistic movement and delivery style, Electra emerges with her Chorus of Women, all wearing plain muslin Greek-style tunics mixed unobtrusively with modern hairstyles. When Aegisthus (John Bogar) arrives in the play’s final scene, all spiffy in a modern white linen suit, he seems to have stepped in from a different play, a discordant time and style-bending element.
This is foremost an actor’s play. Raging and recoiling with grief, spitting vengeance or cringing in near catatonic despair, Kaminski as Electra spellbinds the audience with her raw energy, intense focus and vocally-powerful delivery. Grief emanates as much in sighed whispers as shrieks from her nuanced interpretation. Her Chorus of Women friends serve to reinforce her angst, utterly unable to stem the swelling tide of grief and rage. Director Daniels balances Kaminski’s compelling, raw performance with realistic, dynamic ones from the other actors, pointedly visceral, swept over or domineering. Darragh Kennan’s Orestes exhibits curiously Hamlet-like indecision, a careful demeanor, until whipped to a murderous frenzy by sister Electra’s rage. He murders without thinking, goaded on by sisterly love and desire for vengeance that washes over him like a roaring typhoon. With the revenge enacted she will find peace; it is his task to bring her this, a duty of brotherly love. And yet the horror of the deed, the savagery, hangs in the air over both at the end with evil portent. This costly “peace” will not last for long, one senses. As Clytemnestra, elegant Ellen Boyle exhibits officious disdain and patience worn past the breaking point by daughter Electra’s explosive outbursts. Completely self-serving, Boyle’s Clytemnestra fails to see how her actions and attitudes drive Electra further over the brink into murderous, consuming madness. As the compromising younger sister Chrysothemis, Susannah Millonzi paints a clear picture of a cooler-natured, pragmatist who understands the household’s power structure and sees no constructive end to Electra’s violence. Like Orestes, she is unsure of the correct path to pursue. Her exhausted refusal to participate in the vengeful bloody scheme only serves to fuel Electra’s determination to enact revenge. Finely portrayed, Millonzi creates a sad character. Todd Jefferson Moore’s Servant provides well-time comic relief early on and offers a superbly delivered monologue describing a terrible chariot race wreck where Orestes supposedly gets dragged to death under his horses’ hooves. Feel the horses’ surging power and gulped breaths; see and hear the vivid chaos of flying chariots and downed, broken charioteers littering the course…all a clever fabrication intended to deceive.
If you think Greek tragedy is just pompous and boring verse plays, think again. Seattle Shakespeare’s Electra has enough spine-tingling tension and suspense to please the most devoted action flick fan, enough poetic grandeur to thrill purist scholars of the Classics.
Sophocles’ Electra, adapted by Frank McGuinness and directed by Sheila Daniels for Seattle Shakespeare runs Thursdays through Sundays through January 31, 2010.
Zoe Wanamaker as Electra:
PHOTO: Marya Sea Kaminski as Electra and Ellen Boyle as Clytemnestra. John Ulman photo