April 21 - May 29, 2005
Sophocles' Electra

Reviewed April 24
Running time 1:30 - no intermission
General admission seating
Sophocles was never so easy to follow

This adaptation by Frank McGuinness of one of the oldest plays, a tragedy written 2,400 years ago, avoids the problem of most other adaptations or mere translations. It neither talks down to the audience as it explains the elements of the story, nor is it filled with dull periods of explanation. In 409 BC, Sophocles didn't need to explain a lot about the myths from which the plot was pulled. After all, not only was the myth of the family in which Electra was born part of general popular knowledge, it had been the subject of a play by Euripides which was a big hit just four years earlier. This adaptation was well received on Broadway in 1998 when it earned a Tony nomination for ZoŽ Wanamaker who was noted for holding the passion and emotion back until it cracks. Here Jennifer Mendenhall takes a somewhat different approach, starting at a peak and remaining there until the point of release two thirds of the way through the fairly short evening.

Storyline: The story of Electra's captivity in the house of the murderers of her father Agamemnon (her mother Clytemnestra and her new step-father Aegisthus), and the final, awful vengeance wreaked by her supposedly slain brother Orestes, is set in a distinctly modern setting where Electra is kept in house arrest by an electronic anklet that triggers the gates to slam shut whenever she approaches.

Mendenhall has a way of combining rage with anguish to produce a feeling of emotional overload that certainly fits Electra's situation. Her torment is not just an intellectual exercise in mythology, it is an agony worn right on the surface. It is a good thing that this is a fairly short play, for such intensity can only be handled in relatively small doses. Indeed, before the joyous release triggered by her discovery that her beloved brother is not really dead, but has, in fact, returned to achieve the vengeance she has longed for, her pain begins to grate. She might have started a bit high on the emotion meter, but she certainly needed to be at the peak to make the release work as well as it does.

For a play supposedly spotlighting its star, it is notable that two of the supporting actresses manage to develop their parts with depth and individuality. Rana Kay is particularly at home in the modernistic setting of this production with its electronic surveillance devices, sirens and chain link fences. Her demeanor as Electra's sister is a sharp contrast with Mendenhall's initial fury, grounding the play at a more sustainable level in her briefer but welcome scenes. Maura McGinn is suitably brittle as Clytemnestra, who is brought down by her own hubris as well as by Orestes' vengeance.

The Orestes of this production is Ted Feldman, a stage presence strong enough to justify Mendenhall's grief over his reported death and virile enough to make his personal involvement in terrible vengeance believable. Brian Hemmingsen, who can be fascinating enough to steal an entire show, is surprisingly bland as Aegisthus, the personification of evil in Electra's world. That world, as envisioned in James Kronzer's skewed Greek temple/mansion/prison set, is often fascinating and well worth a visit.

Written by Sophocles. Adapted by Frank McGuinness. Directed by Michael Russotto. Design: James Kronzer (set) Deb Sivigny (costumes) Lisa Ogonowski (lights) Matt Rowe (sound) Christopher O. Banks (photography) Taryn Colberg (stage manager). Cast: Kate Debelack, Ted Feldman, Brian Hemmingsen, Keith N. Johnson, Rana Kay, Maura McGinn, Dallas Darttanian Miller, Debra Mims, Doris Thomas.