Ever wanted to just kill your family? Euripedes’ “Electra” echoes that very sentiment, chronicling the story of a pair of siblings who attempt to avenge their father’s unjust murder. Directed by Emma Hellman-Mass ’04, “Electra” is an eerie portrayal of the gravity of human action and the mercurial nature of justice that accurately captures the sweeping grandeur of Euripedes’ tragic tale.
With a simple set comprised of a wooden shack, some lone trees and a strategically placed water trough, Hellman-Mass emphasizes the character Electra’s (Jessie Gusberg ’06) peasant existence. Unlike standard productions, the Chorus is no longer silent but is made up of a trio of musicians (Meara Palmer-Young ’06, Sarah Tomita ’06, and Daniel Jordan ’06) and the Trojan Maidens are almost god-like voices that resonate from above, resulting in an added layer of chilling commentary. Hellman-Mass utilizes the musical elements of the play well, segueing easily from one section of the play to the next. For a Greek tragedy, the pace is surprisingly swift and balanced, with no section dragging down the action of the show.
Electra herself is introduced to the audience through her husband, the Farmer (Jacob Brogan ’05). Brogan plays the role as a surprisingly earnest and sincere character, immediately drawing the audience in to the somewhat tawdry history that is Electra’s life. Her mother, Clytaemnestra (Julia Holleman ’05) killed Electra’s father, Agamemnon, and immediately remarried Aegisthus. Aegisthus, fearing Electra’s sons would one day avenge their mother’s throne, married Electra to a lonely peasant in hopes that she would produce weak offspring. Electra’s brother Orestes (Tommy Hobson ’04) was sent off to far away lands by a faithful servant so that he would not be killed. The Farmer, unwilling to violate such a noble woman as Electra, has thus kept their marriage chaste.
All of this comes out before the audience even meets the main character and presumed protagonist of the piece, but thankfully Electra’s arrival lives up to the hype. Gusberg, dressed in tattered fabric with blackened eyes and a head scarf, emerges with a passionate diatribe on her current condition. As she curses her mother and stepfather with alarming vehemence, the revenge motive of the play becomes clear. Electra is a woman to be reckoned with: angry, dirty and armed with the mighty sword of justice, she will stop at nothing but blood.
Orestes’ arrival is notable for his majestic air and introspective responses. His nuanced performance is enjoyable because of unexpected jokes and mocking moments as well as the grand gestures. While first thinking Electra a servant girl, he quickly realizes her true identity. Orestes does not reveal himself but pretends to be a friend of Electra’s brother instead. Electra decides to enlist the help of their father’s former servant, the Old Man, played by David Friedlander, in order to feed her noble guest. However, the Old Man is the very servant that helped Orestes to escape as a young boy, and recognizes him immediately. In one of the few comical scenes of the play, Friedlander circles madly around Hobson, hunched over like the love child of the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mother Theresa, while Hobson merely looks bemused by the spectacle he has created. Friedlander achieves a difficult feat, creating a character who is both hilarious and believable.
Once realizing Orestes’ true identity, Electra immediately plots the deaths of her stepfather and Clytaemnestra. The death takes place off-stage, and when Aegisthus’ body is dragged forth by Orestes and his servant Pylades (Elliott Greenberger ’05) the discordant music in the background mirrors the waning assurance one feels in this plight for justice. At this point, the audience begins to question Electra’s unbridled fury just as it understands Orestes’ hesitation in killing his own mother. Electra’s confrontation with Clytaemnestra in the final scenes of the play is revealing, but ultimately ends in a yelling match that one wishes were slightly more insightful regarding the characters’ inevitable reversal.
However, the play’s conclusion is powerfully successful. When Electra, Orestes and Pylades emerge from the house covered in the blood of Clytaemnestra, there are literally goosebumps of horror. Orestes’ question earlier in the play, “How then can man distinguish man?” seems to have a sinister answer. The Just pay a large price in exacting their revenge, perhaps the very justice they seek in the first place.
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