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Jennifer Mendenhall, with a little help from Sophocles and contemporary playwright Frank McGuinness, makes Electra’s stormy emotionalism the main event in the oft-told tale of the Oresteia over at MetroStage. The murdering usurper Aegisthus? Offstage until the last minutes. Good-kid Chrysothemis? A foil for her older sister’s outsize anger. Clytemnestra? A mere supporting harpy. And while the inevitable chorus keeps Mendenhall company for most of the show, don’t expect masks and stylized moves: This is Greek tragedy shorn of its formal tricks and made intimate, individual, inward.
If you’re fuzzy on that oft-told tale, here’s the recap: Clytemnestra, Electra’s mother, and her lover, Aegisthus, have murdered Agamemnon, Electra’s father and the local king. Her co-conspirator had political ambitions, but Clytemnestra was out for revenge, Agamemnon having sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to the gods in hopes of a quick, clean victory in the Trojan War. (We all know how well that turned out.) So Queen C. and her boy toy killed the conquering hero on the red carpet as soon as he got home, and now it’s Electra yearning for payback, waiting for her brother Orestes, exiled in infancy, to make his way back to his birthplace. He’ll avenge their father’s death, she hopes, and free her from what amounts to slavery in the palace Aegisthus and Clytemnestra still occupy.
Now, Sophocles giveth, in that he wrote the sort of role ambitious actresses might eat their children for: Whereas Aeschylus and Euripides treated Electra as an accessory or a nut case, Sophocles wrote a complicated and decidedly central character, and whereas the others were largely concerned with weighty themes—the personal-revenge model of justice measured against the rise of Athenian democracy and the rule of law, for instance—he does full justice to the particular griefs of this singularly tormented woman. But he taketh away, too: His Electra comes on in full cry and rarely lets up, and she can be a little exhausting.
Bravo, then, for McGuinness, whose adaptation colloquializes the language, and for Mendenhall, whose performance is a carefully modulated wonder. She’s constantly on the move—literally, of course, in that she’s constantly striding, climbing, pacing around the courtyard in which designer James Kronzer keeps her caged, but figuratively, too. She finds new shades of anger, outrage, grief, and hurt with each exchange, and, better yet, she aces the mordant humor in McGuinness’ script.
I wish there were more plaudits to pass out, but Michael Russotto’s staging, at least on press night, seemed perilously uneven, with a tentative performance from the chorus and a disengaged turn from Brian Hemmingsen, whose Aegisthus has none of the menace the actor often summons so effortlessly. Rana Kay makes a callow, uncomfortable Chrysothemis. Keith N. Johnson brings a tired dignity to a crucial retainer’s role, and Ted Feldman’s Orestes is reasonably intense, though long in the tooth for the hale young athlete Electra supposedly nursed. Maura McGinn’s capri-pantsed Clytemnestra is less convincing still; you want to see Agamemnon’s charismatic queen, as well as Aegisthus’ crass tart, and McGinn hasn’t found her.
Those elements could evolve, though. Not so Kronzer’s set, anchored by a palace façade you’d expect to see in a production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—a squat cartoon of a villa painted purple and yellow, with slit windows that glow red when things get intense. It’s flanked by a courtyard choked with junk furniture and hemmed in by a tall fence capped with razor wire. (Why yes, we do get it: Electra’s a prisoner as much to her revenge fixation as to Aegisthus.) That design gesture, at least, pays off, when Aegisthus, fleeing from Orestes, gets trapped in the courtyard by the very device he’s used to keep Electra in line. Not so the house, which just hunkers there, waiting purplishly for characters to walk in and get killed.
Still, it’s Electra, not Designed to Sell, and Mendenhall’s Electra can be pretty electrifying. Happily, she’s onstage and upset for most of the evening’s swift 90 minutes—and when she’s onstage and upset, the backdrop isn’t that big a deal.
The backdrop for Journeymen Theater’s The Colorado Catechism feels surprisingly substantial, given the company’s youth and fragile finances. Ryann Lee’s set is a simple Victorian-porch thing, perfectly in tune with Vincent J. Cardinal’s quiet little show.
You wouldn’t expect quiet: In fact, you’d think that drugs and drink and superstar New York painters would make for some pretty flashy theater. But Catechism turns out to be less about the bad things that happen to wild people and more about how one of its lost souls finds redemption in the memory of the other.
Cecil Baldwin and Deborah Kirby are the jaded ink-slinger and the weary schoolteacher, respectively, who become friends and then almost lovers at the Colorado rehab center where they’ve both come to dry out, and aside from an excess or two in emotional moments, both performers are pretty agreeable.
Jeff Keenan directs with commendable restraint; if nothing else, it’s nice that he doesn’t feel compelled to clarify the play’s ambiguous conclusion, which indicates that one recovery or the other has gone awry but leaves it up to you to decide which. And that, in a month that’s brought us a doctrinaire new pope and a fresh wave of my-way-or-the-highwaying from the White House, is a refreshing kind of catechism. CP