Electra | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader


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Court Theatre

It's not a standard retelling of the culmination of the curse on the house of Atreus--but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a glorious retelling, or even an interesting one. Sophocles and his vengeful tragedy take a backseat to concept and elaborate design in this Court Theatre production, directed by Mikhail Mokeiev in his U.S. debut. He has conceived an Electra who is literally at her wit's end, and in some ways that makes sense. Her father, Agamemnon, was killed in vengeance by her mother, Clytemnestra (with the help of Clytemnestra's lover, Aegisthus), and there is little Electra can do but swear vengeance herself and wait for her brother Orestes to come home and carry it out.

In Mokeiev's staging, Electra (Jacqueline Williams) is a modern-day guttersnipe in thrift-shop mourning rags who verges on autistic. She sways back and forth incessantly while slapping the back of one hand into the palm of the other; she crawls, glassy-eyed, over the satin pastels that adorn the floor of John Culbert's sleek set. She's not so much "excessive in her grief" as she is excessive in her movement. This madness is such an imposition on the character, and takes so much work from Williams to sustain, that it becomes primary and Electra's pain, grief, and desire for revenge become secondary. She is certainly a blot on Clytemnestra's satin sheets, as the director would clearly have it, but she's rather a monotonous one: her madness drains her of any genuine force.

Meanwhile, the production gives us a lisping Clytemnestra (Marilyn Dodds Frank) without a hint of the steel that might make a murderess, although costume designer Jeff Bauer has dressed her like a villainess from an episode of Flash Gordon. When mother and daughter confront each other, it's a tired, by-the-numbers listing of woes with no potential for explosion. Each seems more interested in the pretty pond sitting center stage, a preoccupation that ails many of the characters in this production.

Lisa Tejero (as Chrysothemis, Electra's meek sister) manages some interesting and even ethereal moments as she preaches compromise to her disintegrating sister--no mean feat considering the sheer yardage of scarves and lace that turn Tejero into a shapeless grunge queen. Orestes (David New) doesn't fare as well: the design overwhelms him. He and his companion show up to kill his mother and her husband covered head to foot in black rain gear, complete with protective goggles: they look like a pair of futuristic troglodytes loitering outside the palace (nothing suspicious here). In spite of this getup, New and Williams manage a touching brother and sister reunion, and as revenge looms and Electra fades into the background the production heats up. Clytemnestra clings to her son as he carries her off to her death, and the murder of Aegisthus (a lively, arrogant Christopher Pieczynski) is carried out with a twist involving the pretty pond.

Nicholas Rudall's translation is spare and graceful, Sophocles' message clear enough: vengeance begets vengeance. But it's a trifle ironic that, in this production, the greatest satisfaction comes in the last ten minutes, when vengeance is indulged.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.


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