Twenty women in black and red advance one by one into the light, introducing themselves and chanting the names of their mothers, grandmothers, ancestors. The long chains of the women’s names and origins end in the refrain, “I am Electra.” In this hushed and reverential atmosphere, “Electra Speaks” begins.

“Electra Speaks” grew out of a Theater Studies seminar of the same name. The professor, Deb Margolin, became the show’s director, and each member of the all-female class took a role in the play. Margolin — who was joined in directing the play by one of its writers, Sondra Segal — and her class studied the play and its context over the course of the semester. It is theater with a purpose: It attempts to express the universal pain and beauty of womanhood.

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But “Electra Speaks” is the most engaging, and the most true, when it isn’t taking itself too seriously. Both the lengthy program note extolling the importance of women’s theater and the opening Greek-drama style sequence — read in monotone and stiffly pantomimed — create the expectation that the production is little more than a moral play, a political statement about women’s rights.

The play becomes more effective when things actually get going. One scene takes the trials of Greek classical characters into the arena of a Jerry-Springer style show, and the effect is darkly hilarious. Jocelyn Ranne ’07 brings its crude, vivacious host to life while the other actresses pantomime the gruesome murders and rapes of Greek mythology, cackling and stamping from the sidelines. Her spot-on performance, slapstick comedy and rollicking laughter paired with the astonishing cruelties of Greek tragedy make for a funny yet disquieting episode.

In a later scene, a rapid-fire series of mother-daughter exchanges is comic and all too familiar. Melay Araya ’08 steals the show in her brief appearance as a mother who only knows how to answer her daughter’s “why” with a reverent “because.”

The large, quadruple-casted (20 actresses play five parts) ensemble is usually effective, yet often falters. Some transitions seem amateurish and abrupt, and at times the crowd of women on stage makes it difficult for individual characters to stand out, for individual voices to be heard. While the large cast can be cumbersome, there are moments when it works to heighten the mood and add an extra dimension to the text. In a pivotal scene, the four actresses playing Electra — Ranne, Sage Galesi ‘08, Mira Leytes ‘07 and Natalie Paul ’07 — stand in line in a bar of bright light, narrating the trials women face in self-expression. Rotating as the monologue progresses, they each bring their own interpretation to the character, and the quickly changing sequence creates a collage of voices and personalities. Electra, after all, speaks for every woman.

Individual performances sometimes shine out among the crowd. Clare Barron ’08 showed talent and subtlety in a convincing portrait of a perpetually battered woman. Paul and Lila Neugebauer ’07 bring intensity to a mother-daughter dinner scene that escalates into a brutal fight. Brianna Hill ’07 is believable and compelling as Iphegenia, shifting convincingly from acceptance to rage. Sometimes the repetition and the agony become more grating than effective, but a few actresses handle their scenes well and create moments of feeling.

Deb Margolin’s program notes call “Electra Speaks” a “primary, vital feminist text.” Coming out of the Women’s Experimental Theater, which was founded in the late 1970s by the playwrights Segal, Clare Coss and Roberta Sklar, the play’s goal is to give voice to Electra, to address “the profoundly troubling aspects of the social order that we face as women.”

At times the script’s ambitious take on women’s issues gets in the way of its value as entertainment and art. The female sex is sometimes portrayed as far too one-dimensional, described only in terms of man’s crimes against it, reducing the cast to a plaintive crowd of suffering women. Men (and the tie-wearing, career-woman Athenas) are often demonized.

Still, though its renderings of women are periodically less than complex, and its action is sloppy at points, the play creates a few beautiful moments. Though rather weak when it presents itself as simply a statement of female empowerment, it gains power through the performances of its actresses, and is, at its best, a satisfying celebration of women.