Some 2,400 years ago, the Greeks invented modern drama, and just a few days ago, Hilberry Theatre revived Sophocles' Electra. One of a trilogy of plays about a ruling family that comes to grief just after the Trojan War, it is about mankind's lust for revenge and revenge's failure to resolve human problems. In this production, the timeless lesson is delivered dutifully and rather dully.
Electra takes place in Mycenae, Greece, after the death of King Agamemnon. He came home from the war a hero and was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. In this play, Electra, Agamemnon's daughter, sets out to revenge his death and sends her brother, Orestes, into the palace with his dagger. Sophocles demonstrates that the cure can be as bad as the disease, for Electra simply repeats her mother's sin.
Director Joe Calarco writes in the program notes that he will avoid the current tradition of updating Greek plays. Instead, he hews to the original setting and also preserves the Greek dramatic innovation of the chorus. Here the chorus is made up of seven members in ancient Greece there would have been 12 or more and these actors are prominently placed in the dramatic action with choreographed movement, commenting on the action or underscoring it. The only set is by Kathryn A. Botsford the front of the palace with huge embellished doors and it is appropriately regal and oppressive. Christina Tomlinson's costumes are sufficient for distinguishing the actors and their roles. So far, so good.
Calarco uses a translation by Anne Carson. Her translation is prosaic and lacks the poetic ring that makes the tragedy a great tragedy. And overall, Calarco has kept the action and the drama at the same prosaic level. It's one way to reproduce this classic, but it is not the most effective.
This same weakening is seen in the performances: Jennifer McConnell, as Electra, is awash in self-pity and without the great urgency to see justice done; Orestes, played by Michael Brian Ogden, is cautious, like a hare rather than a lion lurching toward his infamy; Electra and Orestes' sister Chrysothemis, as played by Tiffanie Kilgast, is willing to see the deed of murder done but is annoyed rather than deeply affected. These are performances consistent with the director's vision: everyday dysfunctional family relationships, less tragic than melodramatic.
Still, Carly Germany as the killing queen and Jeff Thomakos in the role of Paedagogus are outstanding despite a production that is, overall, dumbed-down. She has verve and is unrepentant, and he dispatches his role primarily as information-giver like ancient wisdom incarnate.
The chorus is, generally, excellent: coached by Megan Callahan, they speak with clarity and weight. Callahan herself leads the group on stage and gives a solid and satisfying reading in her solo moments; her cohorts are Cynthia Barker, Morgan Chard, Danielle Cochrane, Angela Kane and Baaseemah Mustaafaa. Roxanne Wellington is credited with their choreography. It's effective, although the claim that it is based on the technique of dance pioneer Martha Graham is like saying children draw as well as Picasso. Nuh-uh.
There is one oddity, though, that simply will not go away. The chorus is made up of six women and one man, Michael Boynton, dressed as a woman. He towers over his partners and no amount of makeup can obscure his masculine looks. If this is supposed to mean something, director Calarco doesn't make it clear: The fox in the hen house? The transvestite at the sorority party? Who knows; one just has to forget the anomaly and get on with it, while saying that Boynton is a really good sport.
Electra, in repertory with Sweet Bird of Youth, Sly Fox and Antony and Cleopatra, runs through March 23. Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-577-2972. Tickets from $10 to $28.
Michael H. Margolin writes on the performing arts and initially chose the name Electra for his first-born but went with Benjamin instead. Send comments to [email protected]