Aside from the superb acting by all cast members, there is not much else to praise about Electra, a modern adaptation of the Greek tragedy that recently finished its run at the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre.
In ancient Greek times the great philosopher and playwright Sophocles wrote the tragic story of a daughter who is obsessed with avenging the death of her father through murdering her mother. It goes something like this: Clytemnestra (Christine Blair) and her husband, Agamemnon, have four children. One young daughter dies in a hunting accident after Agamemnon’s failure to save her life. Clytemnestra blames her husband for her daughter’s death and turns from him, taking another lover, Aesgisthus (Scooter Downy). Then Agamemnon is murdered in his own bathtub with an axe. Clytemnestra and Aesgisthus are never convicted of the murder, although they are implicated. Finally, the only son, Orestes (Xavier Cano), disappears mysteriously. All who remain are the other two daughters, Chrysothemis (Sara Andreas) and Electra (Rebekah Voss).
All this happens in the prologue, before the action even begins. The remainder of the play is spent focused on Electra’s obsession with murdering her mother and Aesgisthus. And this is literally almost the only action that occurs for the next 65 minutes, making the show an awkward length. It seems too short, but then, there’s not even enough variety of story line to interestingly fill the hour–it almost grows redundant. However, it’s difficult to discern who is to blame for this: Sophocles, or the director and adaptor, Jennifer Vellenga.
Vellenga tore this drama from its rightful home in ancient Greece only to place it on a modern-day Texas ranch. She has kept the ancient language but added modern costumes and character traits. So which is it, ancient or modern? Electra would undoubtedly have been better off if it had stuck with its roots.
This story is just out of place in modern times. It is too tragic, too wrought with emotion; Electra is too obsessed to have any real standing in modern times. In the play, Electra has spent the last 10 years since her father’s death living outside the ranch on top of graves, eating the moldy leftovers Chrysothemis brings to her. Believing herself to be clairvoyant, she speaks with her dead father and sends his presence to torment her mother in the night. She has saves the axe, the murder weapon still bloodied from his death, which she vows is the only way her mother will die.
Her obsession borders on psychotic, preventing the audience from feeling compassion for the character. It is not relevant for the present day. It is better to imagine that tragedy of this magnitude only existed 3,000 years ago.
In addition, Vellenga has added an element of comic relief through Aesgisthus, now an oil tycoon unaware of his own stupidity. The portrayal certainly alludes to George Dubya. And Electra even disciplines her mother with the words: “No blood for oil.” Downy plays this role perfectly, and he is very funny, but comedy in a play of this genre is contradictory and unfitting. Chrysothemis is played as a Paris Hilton-like princess straight out of The Simple Life, complete with a chihuahua, Tinkerbell, in tow. It seems as though all the present-day allusions are trying a little too hard, as if to remind the audience, “See, this could really happen today!”
Despite these downfalls, the acting is remarkable, with each cast member doing everything he or she can to make his or her character maintain his or her ancient integrity. Voss especially has taken her roll to heart. The character seems to consume her. Anger, vengeance, and a hardened heart can be seen in every movement, heard in every line. She has even let her hair become matted, dreadlocked, as if she really had been living in a graveyard for the past 10 years.
This play had so much potential to show the unbelievable acting skills these students must possess to convincingly present a classic Greek tragedy. If only it had been left as it should be, as an ancient tragedy, not 21st-century funny business.
Danielle McNally can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.