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Monday, May 6, 2013

Connected to the Ancients

Theatre Gigante marks 25 years with a new Electra

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"When you want to know what grief means, remember me," Electra tells the Chorus of Female Slaves in The Oresteia, the 2,500-year-old dramatization by the Greek playwright Aeschylus of King Agamemnon's bloody family saga. As it turns out, she is addressing posterity.

To Electra, grief means more than sorrow for the death of her father, murdered upon his homecoming from the Trojan War by her mother, Clytemnestra, and her mother's paramour Aegisthus, who thereby becomes the tyrant of the ancient city of Argos. To Agamemnon's oldest daughter, grief means sorrow infinitely multiplied by moral outrage, a fevered thirst for vengeance in the name of justice.

In this, she is her mother's daughter. Clytemnestra, too, believes that she is serving justice by murdering her husband. Agamemnon had killed their youngest daughter as a sacrifice to bribe a goddess to set wind to the sails of his Troy-bound warships. Aegisthus also feels he has just cause. Agamemnon's father killed his (Aegisthus’) brothers, cooked them in a stew and fed them to their father in a successful plot to rob the throne of Argos from their family line. Tyrant, shmyrant! Each side has its version.

Theatre Gigante will close its 25th season on May 10-11 and 16-18 with a new telling of this ancient political horror story. Watching a rehearsal of Electra reconstructed by Gigante's co-directors Isabelle Kralj and Mark Anderson, I felt connected to the ancients, hearing their fraught, philosophically challenging tale as if seated at some eternal campfire. Kralj and Anderson's style—a distinctly contemporary blend of spoken text, live music and movement—is highly compatible with Greek drama.

Aeschylus, the first playwright to tell Electra's story, makes clear that the god Apollo ordered her brother, Orestes, to murder their mother along with the tyrant Aegisthus. In his version, the goddess Athena creates a court to try Orestes for matricide. She argues that forgiveness, mercy and far-sightedness are a society's only hope of stopping violence from propagating itself. Grief-ravaged Electra represents the alternative.

Later, Sophocles and Euripides dramatized the story (it's not certain in which order). In both, Electra demands matricide. Sophocles, focused on politics, makes that act by Orestes a step to the greater good of ridding the world of Aegisthus. Euripides, focused on morality, judges Electra harshly for refusing to let Orestes stop with the tyrant's toppling.

Krajl and Anderson use Euripides' ending and some of Sophocles' arguments. Their chief inspiration, however, is a Hungarian movie titled Electra My Love. In that film, Aegisthus represents the totalitarian regime that governed Hungary in the 1970s when the film was made. Electra and Orestes are rebels who defeat him at a cost to their humanity. Tyranny harms even those who oppose it.

Kralj and Anderson borrow the film's strategies to offer some thoughts about the world today. "We don't have a despot to rail against," Anderson explained, "but within our system there are despotic forces." Kralj asks, "How do you change a political situation without provoking vengeance from the opposition?"

They've gathered a wonderful group of collaborators. At the rehearsal, the brilliant theater composer Seth Warren-Crow added music for the first time—subtle floating electronic harmonies that gently support the somber story.

He's interpolated a song by a contemporary group, The Tiger Lillies, with their approval. It's nicely sung by Suzette Nelson who, along with Anderson, delivers a range of texts from behind microphones, narrating and interacting with characters in the manner of a Greek Chorus.  

There's a second chorus of five dancers. Joelle Worm, Jessie Mae Scibek and Katie Rhyme are distinguished performers; Molly Corkins and Megan Kaminsky are relative newcomers. The strong choreography is by Kralj. Edwin Olvera is a special treat. A dancer with Pilobolus for years and now a teacher of that company's how-could-they-possibly-do-that style, his muscular presence energizes the room even as dead Agamemnon.

Orestes is played by the fine dancer/actor Joe Fransee, a protégé of the late Ed Burgess and perfect for this role. Craig Menteer, a guest performer from Missoula, makes an intelligent, dignified Aegisthus. Kralj plays Electra as a hurting, implacable prophetess who has worked for 25 years to set the world straight.

Electra will be presented at the Kenilworth Studio 508, 1925 E. Kenilworth Place. Visit arts.uwm.edu/tickets or call 414-229-4308 for tickets.

John Schneider teaches theater history at Marquette University.

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