Greek tragedy ‘Electra’ attempts to flow with the current

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Paula Keller

Classical dramas are still relevant because they touch on universal themes: love, power, grief. There are also a lot of specifics, though, that take some translation for today’s audiences. In Ten Thousand Things’ production of Euripides’ Electra, director/adaptor Rebecca Novick stumbles in an attempt to bridge ancient Greece and modern Minnesota.

Electra

Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center
$30; pay-as-able ($10 suggested) for those under 30.

Electra (Audrey Park) and her brother Orestes (Kurt Kwan) have ample reason to be peeved, as we learn via backstory quickly sketched by a three-woman chorus (Karen Wiese-Thompson, Thomasina Petrus, and Michelle Barber). Their father, Agamemnon, has been slain as the result of a plot by their mother, Clytemnestra (also Barber), and her lover, Aegisthus.

As the play opens, Orestes is returning from exile to exact vengeance. He enlists the willing help of his sister, who’s laboring in an arranged and sexless marriage. (Electra’s husband is a humble farmer, played by Mikell Sapp, who looks like he’d really like to be excluded from this narrative.)

What happens next? Let’s just say there’s a reason neo-Freudians refer to the “Electra complex.”

Fundamentally, Novick’s Electra is a meditation on revenge. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for the sneering Aegisthus, whose end is described in vivid detail by Orestes’ friend Pylades (Ricardo Vazquez), but killing one’s own mother is quite another matter—particularly when, as Clytemnestra ultimately has the chance to explain, marriage to Agamemnon was no picnic. Should Electra have just embraced her faultless farmer and let go of the whole matricide plan?

Even the gods don’t seem to be sure, which is part of the problem. These characters are embedded in a web of rules and relationships that the average theatergoer isn’t going to be up on, and the stakes just aren’t made clear enough in this quick 70-minute play. A freer adaptation, relocating the tragedy to a more familiar setting, might have streamlined the exposition and sharpened the focus on the characters’ moral choices.

As is, with the characters intoning stoically like the heavily burdened archetypes they are, the more liberal aspects of this adaptation feel jarringly incongruous. The chorus insert candid observations like they’re in a daytime talk-show audience; a bag of Cheetos makes a random cameo; and a pair of late-arriving gods (Wiese-Thompson and Petrus) start hamming it up with goofy costumes and wacky mannerisms just as Electra and Orestes are meant to be facing the ultimate crisis of conscience.

This could be a train wreck in less capable hands, but fortunately Ten Thousand Things never skimps on talent. Park and Kwan both bring such desperate gravity to their roles that they’re able to command the wild tonal swings this production requires.

The show’s best moments are when the play’s structure actually supports those performances—as when a maniacal Kwan enters bearing a grisly prop head (designed by Abbee Warmboe) that injects a sobering spectacle into the celebration of Aegisthus’ death. At moments like that, this Electra draws current from the profound tension between abstract justice and messy reality.

Electra
Open Book/Indigenous Roots
612-203-9502; through November 5


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