nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
June 3, 2007
"Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it," wrote the philosopher Santayana, but in the Classical Theatre of Harlem's intense and compressed Electra, it seems that just the opposite may be true: those who best remember the past are burdened by it, trapped in it, and condemned to playing out old patterns and family curses down unto the generations.
In director Alfred Preisser's adaptation of Sophocles's classic tragedy of the House of Atreus, Electra haunts a bloodstained dock on a deserted beach, her days wholly given over to bitter emotions: mourning for Agamemnon, the father she barely knew, and Iphigenia, the sister Agamemnon executed as a sacrifice to the gods; rage against her mother, Clytemnestra, who killed her husband in revenge for the death of her best-loved daughter; and longing for the return from the wars of her brother Orestes, who will somehow make things right. Surrounded by a chorus of mud-spattered, rope-shrouded young women, who've also lost fathers and brothers—all the men in their lives, in their society—to the war, Electra is barely more than a ghost herself, wrapped in rags and hovering over a grave she's dug for herself, staring out to sea. A knife, the instrument of the family's curse, literally hangs over her head, but Electra can't bring herself to take up arms against her mother—that's her brother's place, and her brother is absent. And yet she cannot forgive, forget, or move on, as the chorus urges her to do—all Electra can do is wait inside her growing shell of rage.
Electra's mother, Clytemnestra, and surviving sister, Chrysothemis, have entirely different ways of dealing with the radically changed society and family thrust upon them by war. Clytemnestra has taken a much younger consort, taken the reins of power, and become a femme fatale; Chrysothemis has retreated into domestic platitudes, using the proprieties of politeness, white gloves, and tea parties as a structure for her life. It's easy to mock Chrysothemis, to look at her actions as cowardly, as refusing to face reality—and yet when Orestes does return, and is egged on by Electra into avenging his father's honor, it's Chrysothemis who's left seemingly the least damaged by what's occurred.
Like several of CTH's recent new adaptations of the Greeks, Electra is, among other things, an exploration of the side effects, the "collateral damage" of an extended period of war. In Mycenae, we have a society—and a family—that's entirely atomized in the absence of its entire male population; the three major female characters (all the society there is) could be living in entirely different universes, in terms of their personal preoccupations, the ways they face the world, and their relationships to one another. (And as if to underscore this, the actors playing them—Zainab Jah as Electra, Petronia Paley as Clytemnestra, and Trisha Jeffery as Chrysothemis—give equally strong performances in very different styles. Jah is filled with raw, powerful, barely controlled emotion; Paley is all archness and barbed comments, full of sleek turns of phrase, like a Bette Davis heroine; and Jeffery is polished and precise, hiding her strong emotions under a façade of perfection and poise. Physically, too, Kimberly Glennon's costumes set the three strikingly apart—Electra in rags and smeared with ash and mud; Clytemnestra in red and black, with movie-star hats and a teacup dog under one arm; Chrysothemis in a sunny yellow dress with a starched apron and gloves.)
Where Electra succeeds most is as an eloquent exploration of the family dynamics of women, the poison that can lie between mother and daughter, sister and sister. Although Preisser definitely shows the breakdown of this family and this society in the wake of war, the real action in Electra is so intensely personal and familial that it's not necessarily the best lens through which to explore societal issues. The motivating engines for all the characters are about internal family dynamics—grief, loss, revenge on each other. Of course that family violence is caught up with the war to a certain extent—Agamemnon probably wouldn't have sacrificed his daughter without it—but the poison in this family seems more personal than political, especially given the way the play rushes to its inevitable conclusion.
After taking its time to establish the intricate webs of hatred, jealousy, and need that bind the women in this family together, the whole plot starts hurtling forward when Orestes returns (pretending to be someone other than himself—a comrade who watched Orestes die). Once Orestes reveals himself, the end plays out almost instantly—and feels very rushed and abrupt. Though he's sworn to renounce violence, that he's no longer a soldier, and though he wants to join his mother in pretending everything's turning out just fine, he can't resist Electra's pleas—and in moments, he's shot his mother's consort, stabbed his mother, and the play's come to an end, leaving only Chrysothemis seemingly intact.
I found this resolution a little disconcerting. There's a fine line between not being trapped by the past, and repressing the past—disengaging from history—altogether, and the play seems to skate close to the latter. I'm not entirely sure that's the message Preisser was going for.