The story of Electra isn’t quite part of the Greek tragedy pantheon. It’s been dramatized by several playwrights, from Aeschylus to Euripides (not to mention Eugene O’Neill). But it’s not humanities-requirement reading like the Oedipus trilogy and doesn’t have the scenery chewing central role—like Medea, for instance—that brings it occasionally to the real, live stage. In fact, the story is probably most commonly seen on stage in the form of Richard Strauss’s searing modernist opera.
Which makes Theatre Gigante’s version of the story, which opened this weekend, all the more powerful and essential. Mark Anderson and Isabelle Kralj have distilled the story and themes into a visceral and beautiful hour-long event that speaks hard truths to the 21st-century viewer. It strikes deep.
Electra’s story is one of unrepentant and calculated vengeance, but unlike Shakespeare’s burrow into the soul of Hamlet, it sets her individual story against a broad social backdrop. Her father, the Trojan War hero Agamemnon, is murdered by her mother’s lover, Aegistus. She marries him, and the two rule as king and queen. Electra vows revenge on both of them, but her brother Orestes disappears and refuses to help her. And her pleas for justice are met with deaf ears by the citizens, who have experienced prosperity and order under their new king. Eventually, Orestes returns, and Electra pushes her sense of vengeance to the extreme, demanding that their mother die for her crimes as well.
Anderson and Kralj pare the story to essentials, and stage them with simple gestures in the style of Asian theater. The murder, for instance, is enacted with a kind of formal ceremony. On one side of the stage, Aegistus (Craig Menteer) stands quietly and slowly thrusts a dagger down toward the floor. On the other side, Agamemnon collapses and falls. Five female dancers act as a kind of choreographic chorus, suggesting the anguish of the play’s moral questions with sweeping gestures. (They also suggest the emptiness of new prosperity, mouthing rote “blessings” they have received under the new king in a scene that suggests the “Dear Leader” propaganda of modern day North Korea.)
The action is narrated—in spoken word and song, poetry and matter-of-fact narrative—by Anderson and Suzette Nelson. Seth Warren-Crow heightens the impact of the words with a live electronic and percussion score. Edwin Olvera’s visceral dancing represents both the life and afterlife of the murdered king. Joe Fransee plays the reluctant Orestes with steady solemnity. And Isabelle Kralj plays the title character with intensity in both voice and movement, creating a powerful portrait that combines personal vendetta and the quest for justice.
The result is a piece of theater that engages both thought and emotion. The storytelling here makes the parallels with the 21st Century both resonant and troubling. What ideals are we will to sacrifice for general comfort and social smooth sailing? Does the right to retribution include severing the most sacred blood bonds? It’s a tribute to the elegance and thoughtfulness of the production that these most essential of conflicts aren’t easily explained or resolved. This Electra evokes the most sacred function that lies at the very beginnings of theater, posing questions that burn at the very center of our lives.