Saturday, March 9, 2013

Off Off Broadway: Electra

Kelli Holsopple in ELECTRA.  Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, co-founded by Craig Smith and Elise Stone (who were formerly affiliated with the sorely-missed Jean Cocteau Repertory) is an exceptionally talented and professional off off Broadway troupe with a penchant for the classics.  In 2011, Phoenix embarked upon a celebration of ancient Greek drama by commencing the staging of a House of Atreus trilogy of plays over a three year period - an ambitious project which is now culminating in the production of Electra at The Wild Project on East 3rd Street in the East Village.

For its first work in 2011, Phoenix revived Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis.  Helen, the wife of Menelaos, King of Sparta, had run off to Troy with Paris, a Trojan prince, and all of the leaders of Greece, including Agamemnon, Menelaos’ brother, joined in a war against Troy to retrieve her.  Agamemnon was the commander of the Greek forces but the goddess Artemis has withheld the winds so that they are unable to sail for Troy.  In exchange for allowing the Greek troops to sail, Artemis has demanded the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter.  The play ends with Iphigenia being sacrificed and the Greeks setting sail for Troy.

For its next work in 2012, Phoenix opted not to revive Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, but rather to launch the world premiere production of Agamemnon Home, a play by Glyn Maxwell that was based on the original tragedy by Aeschylus but took considerable liberties with it.  It is a decade later and Agamemnon, no longer the heroic figure we’d come to expect, is returning home with his men.  In his absence, Clytemnestra, his wife and Iphigenia’s mother, has hooked up with Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin.  After Agamemnon and Cassandra, his concubine and war prize, wash ashore, it only remains for Clytemnestra to resolve her relationship with Aegisthus and wreak vengeance on Agamemnon for having killed their daughter.

The 2011 production of Iphigenia in Aulis, relying on a fine translation of Euripides tragedy, proved to be an excellent revival of a Greek classic.  The 2012 production of Agamemnon Home, on the other hand, was not a revival per se but rather was a re-working of the original Aeschylus theme.  As one who generally prefers not to see the classics tinkered with, I preferred the Iphigenia in Aulis production but I must admit that Agamemnon Home was still so good in its own right that I certainly enjoyed that one as well.

Now, for its third and final production in the trilogy, Phoenix has again staged a revival of an original Greek tragedy – this time Sophocles’ Electra in the translation by Anne Carson.  We have now come full circle:  Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia in Iphigenia in Aulis, Clytemnestra avenged Iphigenia’s death by killing Agamemnon in Agamemnon Home, and now, in Electra, it only remains for one or more of Agamemnon’s and Clytemnestra’s children – Electra (Kelli Holsopple), Chrysothemis (Morgan Rosse), and/or Orestes (Josh Tyson) – to avenge Agamemnon’s death by killing their mother, Clytemnestra (Page Clements).

Electra is consumed with the desire to avenge her father’s death by matricide but, as a woman, her opportunities to achieve her objective are limited.  Her sister, Chrysothemis, shares Electra’s goal but is not nearly as obsessed by it as Electra is.  And so the sisters hopefully await the return of their exiled brother, Orestes, who should be capable of accomplishing their goal.  Orestes ultimately does arrive and the deed is done.

Unfortunately (since this is the only one of the three plays still running), I found Electra to be the least satisfying of the three.  Running time for the show is listed at 90 minutes but the performance I attended ran closer to 110 minutes and much of the excess I thought derived from unnecessary repetitive verbosity in the initial scenes.  Amy Wagner directed all three plays and Kelli Holsopple is a truly fine actress (she played Iphigenia in Iphigenia in Aulis and Cassandra in Agamemnon Home) and Ms Wagner and Ms Holsopple teamed up to do a fine job on the first two-thirds of this trilogy but, for what it’s worth, I think they went off the rails a bit on this one.  In Electra, I found Ms Holsopple’s performance to be excessively histrionic; indeed, she almost literally bounces off the walls.

But all things are relative and. as a whole, the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is so professional a troupe that even this lesser production is still worth seeing.  Ms. Clements, in particular, does a fine job in her portrayal of Clytemnestra and Joseph J. Menino is delightful as Pedagogus, Orestes’ servant, former tutor, and traveling companion. 

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