A Summer of Greek Theatre Electra at MetroStage

By Rich See

"Wow!" pretty much sums up MetroStage's compelling staging of the revenge tragedy Electra. It's the word that comes to mind about midway through the show, when you realize that Jennifer Mendenhall has been alternately jumping across the stage, flinging herself down onto the ground, crying and then hysterically laughing for over 40 minutes without stopping. Dressed in combat fatigues, her physical and emotional intensity never wanes. She is an avenging angel, maniacal revenger and emotionally disturbed daughter all at once.

Written by Sophocles sometime between 420 and 413 A.D. the Electra myth shares the story of the House of Atreus. Once a mighty man, Atreus was killed by Aegisthus with the help of Atreus' wife Clytemnestra. While Clytemnestra insists her participation in the plot was to exact revenge upon Atreus for sacrificing one of their daughters to the gods, she has since married Aegisthus and would like to see her son Orestes dead. During the tragic evening when Aegisthus and his men attacked the home of Atreus, Electra smuggled Orestes (who's death was also plotted) out of the country with a trusted servant. It is for this crime that Electra is imprisoned in her own home and enslaved as a servant by her own mother. Needless to say the mother-daughter relationship in this family is not very amiable.

Sophocles' story enters many years later when the grown Orestes has decided to return and reclaim his rightful place as the head of the house and to exact revenge upon all who participated in his father's murder. Electra has spent the intervening years crying and lamenting her miserable fate, refusing to be overcome by the powerful force against her. Her sister Chrysothemis meanwhile has played the game and although she reviles her stepfather and mother, sees little help available to the two women. Not wishing to become an abused outcast like Electra, she holds her grief inside in order to face the realty of the situation, which contrasts with Electra, who is at times insane with grief. And so the sisters, unable to handle their vastly different ways of coping, part ways. Unbeknownst to them, Orestes is lurking in the shadows and devising a plot to enter the house and exact his revenge upon his mother and her husband.

Frank McGuinness' adaptation sets the entire staging in a small prison-like compound. The rubbish of the murdered owner's belongings simply decaying outside while the criminals live in comfort inside. His Electra is a combative figure roiling in her misery, hoping for some relief from the outside world, yet always unable to keep her constantly shifting emotions to herself, thus ensuring abuse by her own family. Now a grown woman she remains emotionally a child due to the tragedy that surrounds her and the grief that she so readily embraces and refuses to let pass.

Director Michael Russotto has obviously pushed his cast -- and especially his lead -- to maintain a sense of emotional urgency and tautness. Even if you already know the story, this production keeps you on the edge of your seat. The production points out the timelessness of the tale by adding a modern sense of organized crime and competing crime families. (The House of Atreus is not without its skeletons.) There is a heavy urban industrial sense about the show that shows up in the set design, costumes and Matt Rowe's evocative sound design.

James Kronzer's wonderful set places the action in what looks like a junkyard. Chain link fence surrounds the stage and trash and decaying furniture are heaped about. An automatic detection system keeps Electra imprisoned as a gate closes off the property anytime she nears the perimeter. In stark contrast to this despairing site is the Greek temple-like home, which is painted in Easter colors of pastel yellows, purples and reds. It looks almost cartoonish against the urban grittiness about it, as if mocking the tragedy that has befallen it.

Debra Kim Sivigny's costumes are similarly composed. Electra is outfitted in battle fatigues. Orestes and his men in dark leather jackets and muted modern clothes while Aegisthus is dressed in a polished suit and seemingly drives a large sedan. Meanwhile Clytemnestra and Chrysothemis, wearing sunglasses and pastel colors, each look like they just arrived from a shopping excursion at an upscale mall. The all-female chorus who speak in unison or as alternating voices of the same thought are dressed individually as servants and a family friend.

Jennifer Mendenhall is a dynamic Electra. She has obviously thrown herself into this role and it shows in every word and movement she makes. Ted Feldman makes a quietly powerful Orestes who gives the impression that a ruling crime don has come back to claim his own. Rana Kay is compelling as a misunderstood Chrysothemis showing the tempered sanity that Electra is seemingly lacking.

Maura McGinn and Brian Hemmingsen as Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are engagingly unrepentant and unsympathetic characters. Ms. McGinn looks the part of a Potomac housewife who is more concerned about her physical luxuries than the prison-like environment in which she resides. Mr. Hemmingsen meanders on stage with such attitude that you wish his character's part had been larger.

Among the rest of the cast, Keith N. Johnson and Dallas Darttanian Miller are Orestes' companions who have returned with him from abroad, while Kate Debelack, Debra Mims, and Doris Thomas make up the three person Greek chorus.

I have only one suggestion for this superb production --- the urn that houses Orestes' ashes -- someone needs to take off the "Made in..." (China maybe?) label on the bottom. Although, I'm probably the only person who has noticed it...

by Sophocles
Adapted by Frank McGuinness
Directed by Michael Russotto

with Keith N. Johnson, Dallas Darttanian Miller, Ted Feldman, Jennifer Mendenhall, Rana Kay, Maura McGinn, Brian Hemmingsen, Kate Debelack, Debra Mims, Doris Thomas
Set Design: James Kronzer
Costume Design: Debra Kim Sivigny
Lighting Design: Lisa L. Ogonowski
Sound Design: Matt Rowe
Running Time: 1 hour and 20 minutes with no intermission
MetroStage, 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria
Telephone: 800-494-8497 or 703-548-9044
THUR - SAT @8, SUN @2 & 7; $32 - $38
Opening 04/21/05, closing 05/29/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 04/28/05 performance