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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
As you take your seat at the Barrymore Theatre your eye takes in Johan Engels' darkly foreboding set. At the rear is a brick wall and a rust stained metal door more reminiscent of a warehouse than the entry to royal home. At the center of the stage broken bits and pieces from what looks to be a civilization gone amok are caught by harsh white lights -- a slab of marble leaning precipitously on a broken Corinthian column and some shabby upholstered chairs that seem to be remnants of a less austere environment. "Looks gloomy" I heard one man say to his companion, whose most appropriately responded: "This is not the children's hour but the House of Atreus."
The children in this House of high trauma are the offspring of King Agamemnon who, when the gods demanded human sacrifice if he was to move his stalled ships forward during his war against Troy, killed their sister Iphigenia. Agamemnon was in turn murdered by his wife (and Iphigenia's mother) Clytemnestra ( Claire Bloom) and her lover Aegisthus.( Daniel Oreskes) This left the oldest daughter Electra ( Zoë Wanamaker), his chief mourner and sworn avenger. To insure that vengeance (the murder of their mother and stepfather), she secreted her young brother Orestes ( Michael Cumpsty) out of the kingdom in the care of a loyal servant ( Stephen Spinella), to return when he was old enough to do the bloody deed. In the meantime, Electra lives as an embittered exile within the palace, baiting an battling her mother, while her sister Chrysothemis (Marin Hinkle) represents the conquered who is willing to compromise with the conqueror.
As adapted by Frank McGuinness (who also cast a fresh eye on Ibsen's The Doll's House -- see link) and directed by David Leveaux, Sophocles' s 2000-plus-year-old story of revenge has not only been physically allied to current events, but stripped down to a drama-packed plain-spoken ninety minutes accessible to audiences with little exposure to Greek drama. While Sophocles might not recognize some of the language spoken by the actors in this adaptation, and find the staging and costumes puzzling, he would know his Electra from the hate, pain, tension and fiery acting that snaps, crackles and pops throughout the intermissionless performance.
Filled with innovation as it is Electra, now as ever, is a tour de force for the title character and Zoõ Wanamaker is certainly a force to be reckoned with. Except for the opening scene when Orestes and his servants set the scene for closing the circle of revenge, she is always on stage. Her entrance, like everything else about the production is gripping. The droning sound that is heard even before the lights dim intensifies and our eyes are drawn to an opening high up in that brick wall where Electra, like a human worm, wriggles her way out and down aladder. The white mask of tragedy she wears is hardly necessary since when removed it reveals a face even more full of anguish. It's not a beautiful face and her hair, which looks as if she'd deliberately put it through a lawn mower that left a trail of blood encrusted patches, emphasizes the doughy pallor of the skin and clownlike nose. In the ensuing scenes she takes us through the entire lexicon of adjectives to describe human emotion -- rage, grief, despair, sarcasm, manic triumph and, above all, belligerent insistence that justice (as she sees it) must be done.
Ms. Wanamaker's performance is as oversized as the olive drab coat which, like the vaguely modern set is another Leveaux touch to sharpen audience awareness of the link between the war-torn world of ancient Greece and its modern day counterparts. (It is, in fact, the coat of her slain father). This Electra commands attention, whether she is ranting and stomping about or sitting still. Given the play's blessedly pared-down length, even such scenery chewing bits as spitting in her sister's face and licking her mother's blood off Orestes' hands after her murder turn out to be as electric as they are excessive.
While Ms. Wanamaker is the only actor who has been with this production since its previous runs at the increasingly famous Donmar Warehouse in London and the McCarter Theater in New Jersey, Mr. Leveaux once again proves himself adept at bringing together English and American actors. Electra couldn't wish for a more regal mother on whom to vent her hate than Claire Bloom. Though on stage only briefly, she makes a deep impression as a stunning lady in blood red -- (red silk gown, red velvet cloak, red hose and shoes and a flash of distinctly un-Greek costume jewelry) -- who knows her way around countering accusation with counter-accusation (Yes, she killed Agamemnon, but didn't he also kill her first-born?).
Michael Cumpsty is also effective as the brother destined to become a murderer. As Chrysothemis, the other sister in this most dysfunctional of all families, Marin Hinkle brings just the right degree of strength and softness to the appeaser who is willing to put aside bitterness for a more comfortable life with her mother and stepfather. I've seen this luminously beautiful actress lend strength even to flawed plays and one can only hope that someone's in the wings writing a terrific play in which she can star.
Stephen Spinella who was considered too young to play the one-man Greek chorus in A View From the Bridge is still too young and slim to play a servant at least sixty years old -- yet, with his grey hair and beard and eloquent delivery he manages to be fully convincing. While we're on the subject of Greek choruses, the chorus in this production consists of an unusual and most effective trio. Only Pat Carroll, as the voice of reason and support, speaks, but the two silent women, Myra Lucretia Taylor and Mirjana Jokovic, are unforgettable as they silently echo Electra's every emotion.
Daniel Oreskes has almost a walk-on part as the unsavory stepfather and co-murderer of Agamemnon. He doesn't arrive until the very end but that entrance is quite spectacular as is the the opening of that rusty metal door to reveal an abstract entrance to the palace. Besides being dressed in a Tom Wolf like cream-colored celebrity suit, Aegisthus meets his death with one of t he play's most telling philosophical questions: "Shall there be killing after killing forever?"
When Electra once again dons the expressionless white mask, this time dripping with Aegisthus's blood, the cycle of revenge is complete and the long dead playwright has proved yet again the staying power of Greek drama. Would that a playwright working in the theater today can come up with something that will come close to resonating as strongly with theater goers in the next millenium.
It is because of the innate strength of the play, that I close on a negative note about the director's program notes. I am one of those people who read indexes, footnotes, appendixes-- and in theater, program notes. In this case, I rather wish I hadn't bothered with Mr. Leveaux' introduction to the play which I found somewhat condescending and intrusive. Why not let audiences think for themselves and trust Sophocles to lead them to their own conclusions and analogies? Otherwise, a job well done.
Plays with Marin Hinkle: The Dybuk. . .Transit of Venus . . .Evolution. . .The Changeling. . .The Seagull In the Hamptoms
Stephen Spinella in View From the Bridge
Frank McGuiness' adaptation of A Doll's House
Another Greek play reviewed: Hecuba