Seattle Shakespeare's production of "Electra" offers a whirlpool of roiling emotions in a mythic tragedy of betrayal, grief and revenge.
At the start, Seattle Shakespeare Company’s powerful new production of “Electra” drew some titters on opening night. That’s understandable in a way, given Todd Jefferson Moore’s innate flair for comedy, even in the guise of a former servant to the blighted House of Atreus.
But the laughs may also have been part of the uneasy plunge into the archaic mind-set of Marya Sea Kaminski’s searing Electra, and the whirlpool of roiling emotions in a mythic tragedy of betrayal, grief and revenge.
Using a 1997 adaptation of “Electra” by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness, director Sheila Daniels and her ensemble gradually, artfully envelop us in the dilemma of a woman who, in a sense, is a distant ancestor to Hamlet.
Like the Danish prince, Electra is determined to avenge the murder of a royal father, King Agamemnon, by slaying his killers: Electra’s abusive mother, Queen Clytemnestra (regal, imperious Ellen Boyle), and her grasping stepfather, Aegisthus (John Bogar).
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But Electra has siblings on her side, and on her case. A younger sister, Chrysothemis, played by versatile classical actor Susannah Millonzi as a jangly bundle of fears and doubts, tries to derail Electra’s bloody plans.
However, a valiant brother, Orestes (Darragh Kennan), presumed dead, returns home to help do the deed.
The lean poetry McGuinness distilled from more ornate English adaptations of the “Electra” of Sophocles sounds ungainly at first in Kaminski’s flat American tones. And the craggy, granite obstinacy of hatred takes time to sink in.
But Daniels draws taut, focused work from all the cast, including the mini Greek chorus gracefully led by Susanna Burney. And the design scheme, like the staging, favors unshowy simplicity.
Peter Rush’s white gowns — elegant, girlish or bedraggled — drape the women. And Andrea Bryn Bush’s set evokes both the ancient (with Grecian pillars) and modern (with prisonlike wire-mesh gates) world. Robertson Witmer’s spare, moody music is another unfussy asset.
This allows room for the raw, gripping anguish of Kaminski’s portrayal. Her battered and bruised Electra is stripped of every grace. She’s lost everything but her grim passion to settle scores.
Her reaction to news of Orestes’ alleged death is harrowing. And her unexpected reunion with him is so ecstatic, it alarms her more contained brother.
But as the sorrow and the pity of Electra’s predicament hits us, so does the futility of this familial cycle of violence, and the capriciousness of the gods who encourage it. Clytemnestra reminds Electra that she killed Agamemnon in order to avenge his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, in order to appease the goddess Artemis (events dramatized in other plays).
Will the violence and hubris never cease, wonders the chorus.
The same can be asked of the continuum of vengeance that persists today. The London premiere of McGuinness’s “Electra” alluded to the venerable hatreds rekindled in the Bosnian war.
SSC’s “Electra” doesn’t need to call to mind our present wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The high caliber of work by these Seattle actors and their director is enough to bring it all home.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org