nytheatre.com review by Kristin Skye Hoffmann
August 14, 2011
As the audience enters the 4th Street Theatre for Butoh Electra we are handed a stone. "You will need this for the show." As we find our seats there is a picturesque arrangement of actors on stage. Bodies all in white are wrenched into different positions of discomfort, blinded by a white cloth over their eyes and muted by a similar cloth around their mouths. At their center is a presence in red, a white-faced, dark-haired woman, clearly pensive and wrought with pain. They make up a most tragic flower, possibly the Plum Blossom they discuss later in the play, signifying perseverance and resilience in the face of adversity, because it blooms in the winter snow.
The Chorus awakes blind and writhing. We are in Purgatory and the "last remnants of humanity" are trapped there along side Electra. We, the audience, are the adjudicators.
Soon we are taken back to a "dreamlike memory of feudal Japan" where the tragic story of Electra has taken place. This is where Electra, overcome by misery and the need for revenge takes the lives of not only her traitorous usurper of an uncle but here mother and beloved brother Orestes as well.
What The Ume Group along with creator/director Jordan Rosin have produced is something very beautiful and disturbing. They have combined two cultures rich with mythology, the Ancient Greeks and the Japanese culture, to make a bold retelling of this tale.
They have chosen to use Butoh dance to inform the play in its entirety. Butoh is a name for a diverse range of activities, techniques and motivations for dance, performance, or movement inspired by the Ankoku-Butoh in Japan.
I think it's a perfect combination for storytelling of this magnitude. The dance in its sustained movement accesses the human body in ways that are necessary for Greek tragedies. The primal, visceral need to cry out from someplace within us is depicted perfectly. The movement is controlled and sustained and carries the piece. They also make use of some martial arts led by fight choreographer Christian Leadley. I enjoyed these elements for the most part, but I think that Electra's intensity and need to build strength in order to exact her revenge could have been better showcased. There is very little urgency where there could be much.
The ensemble works as a cohesive unit, possibly even an organism, willing Electra to choose life over pain and revenge. Each Chorus member represents one of the following: Love, Trust, Virtue, Hope and Mercy. Each one is unique and each one is deliberately cast down by Electra's deeds. The costumes by Mary Olin Geiger and Timothy Westbrook are fantastic and really complement that piece well.
The weakest moments in this production come whenever there is extended dialogue. It's as if the long, slow movement has infiltrated the actors' ability to speak and so it never seems human or connected. Each sentence is broken up by lengthy moments of silence that I think work against the stakes that exist between characters rather than serve it. I think motivating those scenes or eliminating the dialogue altogether would solve that. Truly this is a movement piece and all the performers on stage are masters of it.
The great punctuation mark that comes at the end of the show is quite shrewd and I won't ruin it by telling you what we do with the stones. Overall this is a beautiful, cohesive interpretation of the ancient text and Rosin has carried his story beautifully. I look forward to future incarnations of this work.