A drum steadily beats as the low drone of a flute hums on. Doctors clad in white shuffle quietly in the corners. A straitjacket-confined girl sits eerily still in the middle of a room, her black-painted eyes a stark contrast to the pale sterility of her surroundings. A dark, shrouded figure whirls and dances about the girl. The doctors transform into masked beings, their arms tightly hugging themselves, mirroring the entrapment of the young woman. She begins to twist and contort her body, trying to break free of the sick device that imprisons her. This is “Electra” as you have never seen it before.
This weekend, the Yale Cabaret presents “Mask Ritual: Electra,” a unique interpretation of Euripides’ classic play. The customs of East and West collide as the time-honored Greek tragedy is represented through a traditional Korean mask ritual. The performance begins after the action of the original play has already happened. Electra has been committed to a mental hospital, unable to escape her “han,” a Korean cultural concept of lament and oppression. Cue the entrance of the shaman, who summons the spirits of her relatives, including the mother and step-father she helped to murder, and the process of Electra’s healing begins.
“Mask Ritual: Electra” features traditional Korean instruments played live during the performance. The music, composed and arranged by students exclusively for the show, crucially reflects the action of the play. In a particularly impressive scene during which Electra relives her part in the brutal murder of her parents, the musicians burst into an intense and driving cacophony of percussion, and the audience can feel the shock and shame that have consumed the girl.
The adaptation is the brainchild of Minsun Jung DRA ’09. After reading Euripides’ original text for a class, she didn’t like the way the character of Electra was left at the end of the tragedy. “It was just too painful,” Jung commented. By drawing on her own Korean background, Jung envisioned a way to free Electra from her emotional baggage — her “han” — through a mask ritual. Director Jesse Jou DRA ’10 was in the class in which Jung first presented her idea, and when the play was proposed to the Cabaret, he was more than thrilled to jump onboard.
While so entrenched in the old traditions of these Western and Eastern cultures, “Mask Ritual: Electra” manages to again defy regular conventions with its use of modern dance. The play is first and foremost an
interpretive dance performance and the choreography of Brenna Palughi DRA ’10 deserves to be commended. The graceful flowing movements of the masked spirits weave beautifully together with the jarringly different jerky dance characterized by Electra. The asynchronous routines of the nurses and doctors from the opening of the play parallel the madness and desperation raging inside of Electra. The choreography owed a lot the musicians in creating the affecting dance. “We were so lucky to have the composer in the rehearsal room with us,” Palughi said. “They were flexible in changing the length and feeling and even the counts of the music.”
Often, though, the plot of the play failed to be clear. Without background knowledge of the Euripides’ play or the myth of Electra, it would be nearly impossible to follow the story. The dialogue seemed to have been added as an afterthought and took a backseat to the more artistic elements of the play.
Plot shortcomings aside, the dancing and music are impressive enough to warrant a viewing of the performance.
“Mask Ritual: Electra” will run at the Yale Cabaret (located at 217 Park St.) tonight and Saturday, with showings at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.