March 10, 2004





An angry, bloody 'Electra'


By Rob Kendt

Special to The Times


What becomes a tragic heroine most? Mourning doesn't cut it for the complex Electra who seethes at the center of A Noise Within's strange, haunting new production of Euripides' grim revenge drama.


When she staggers determinedly onstage dressed like grunge-period Courtney Love, in a tattered strapless gown that exposes self-inflicted nail scorings and black boots that match her lipstick, this wronged Electra is seeing red.


Literally. Apart from her own warpaint, which includes an ominously bloody neckline, there is Michael C. Smith's splattered, dismembered set to cue us that we're knee-deep in the gore of a multi-generational family feud with a high body count that's about to tick up some more.


Indeed, when Electra and brother Orestes confer about the "final sacrifice" of their mother, Clytemnestra, it has the chill ring of a horror-movie showdown, another grisly installment in a franchise that might be called "The Tantalus Chainsaw Massacre."


That Electra is played by Donald Sage Mackay, in director Sabin Epstein's almost-all-male rendition, puts us at a revealing remove from the text, in Elizabeth Seydel Morgan's pungent, contemporary-sounding translation. This is an Electra burning with righteous hatred, not an excess of father-love.


Mackay's male energy also evokes another storied avenger of a murdered father, Hamlet, who likewise blamed his mother as much as, if not more than, Dad's usurper. Euripides' theology is different from Shakespeare's, of course, which makes the moral and tragic dimensions of the play's matricide disturbingly alien and provocative.


"Her punishment was just, but what you did was wrong," the chorus announces to Orestes, who brought down the killing blade on Mom, with Electra as his cheerleader. Well, that clears things up.


Epstein's conception is single-minded without being reductive: stark white faces with markings somewhere between mime and modern primitive (design by Joyce Ann Cantrell); no-period costumes in an earthy palette by Yevgenia Nayberg, with twine and straw for frills; an ethereal, tentatively martial score by Laura Karpman.


His performers take up the dare, giving the proceedings a ritualistic simplicity that feels appropriately Greek, at the same time rooting the play's action in reality--or at least, in a kind of alternate reality where the stakes are always life and death, and fate clings like a studded choker to every action, curse and vow.


Mackay's lead turn is harsh but finely shaded; his unforced gender ambiguity effectively embodies Electra's deeper ambivalence. Stephen Rockwell makes an affecting Orestes, dutiful soldier turned reluctant executioner. As Clytemnestra, Francois Giroday is disarmingly gentle and indulgent (though one wishes he'd shaved his goatee for the part).


Stephen Weingartner and William Dennis Hunt stand out from the muscular, sinuous chorus, their faces transformed--and not only by makeup--into harrowing, accusatory visages.


Similarly striking is the only female onstage, young Alexandra De Liso Smith, in an invented observer's role. Much of the story is told to her, as if this were a bedtime story designed to give her nightmares. She seems unflappable, particularly delivering the show's icy benediction--an existentialist shrug that makes it clear why Euripides wasn't big box office in his day.


The intervening millennia haven't softened his edge so much as borne out his withering skepticism of gods, men and unholy dealings between the two. That's a tragedy that, alas, remains fresh as our flesh.


"Electra," A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd, Glendale. Sunday, Mar. 21, 2 & 7 p.m.; Wednesday-Thursday, Mar. 24-25, 8 p.m.; Sunday, Apr. 11, 7 p.m.; Wednesday, Apr. 14, 8 p.m.; Friday, Apr. 23, 8 p.m.; Saturday, Apr. 24, 2 & 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 2, 2 & 7 p.m.; Thursday, May 6, 8 p.m.; Friday, May 14, 8 p.m.; Saturday, May 15, 2 & 8 p.m. Ends May 15. $20-40. (818) 240-0910 x 1. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.