ELECTRA (Villanova): Sophocles gets electrified

Reprinted by kind permission from Neals Paper.

Megan Slater and Kara Krichman. Photo by Paula Nogueras.
Megan Slater and Kara Krichman. Photo by Paula Nogueras.

So much in terms of exploring multiple themes, making logical cases, and good old straightforward presentation is precisely right in David Cregan’s production of this Sophocles classic, it seems almost caviling to wish that Cregan’s cast had better voices and more attuned sensitivity to line readings that might make Frank McGuinness’s well-crafted rendition of the play sing more sweetly and more powerfully.

No one in his cast disappoints Cregan. Performances are solid. It’s just that trick of the tongue, that emotion in the voice, and knack for hitting a line at its pithiest, most meaningful point that is missing. One admires Kara Krichman for much of what she brings to Electra, but longs to see what Villanova divas of seasons past, such as Rebecca Jane Cureton and Victoria Rose Bonino, would have done with it. Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez impressed with her diction, and it was gratifying to see the leap Dan Cullen has made since last year in bringing magnitude to the stage, but speech, more than anything, kept Villanova’s “Electra” from soaring to the dramatic and thematic heights Cregan and a well-tuned chorus could have taken it.

Enough harping to one element that obviously consumed my attention but did not, in the long run, mar my enjoyment of Cregan’s work.

Cregan kept matters simple and direct. Rajiv Shah’s set is the basic columns that connote a Greek august residence or Temple. Other designers had more leeway but showed equal subtlety. Janus Stefanowicz’s costumes are a lesson in how to stay in period while differentiating one character from another. Her dresses for Electra, her sister, Chrysothemis, and their mother, Clytemnestra, tell a full story in themselves. O’Hanlon-Rodriguez, as Chrysothemis wears a simple but beautiful and well-maintained dress befitting a princess from the powerful House of Atrius. Electra is also a princess, but her sorrow, complaints, and calls for justice (revenge) for her father, Agamemnon’s, murder at the hands of her mother and lover, Aegisthus, have put her in displeasure with royal powers and threaten to lead to life in a palace dungeon. For now, she has some leave to walk near the fringes of Clytemnestra’s lair and to talk to the citizens of Mycenae, the chorus. As she broadcasts her numerous troubles, about her father’s death, about her treatment, about her fear and hatred of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, Stefanowicz apparels her in a dress you can see was once just as fine as Chrysothemis’s but that is not worn, tattered, and stained. By tears, but the dust of Electra’s lodgings, and by not being laundered or replaced as Chrysothemis’s garments are. Electra, we see, is not only out of favor, but as neglected and disinherited as she says she is.

Stefanowicz is also creative and showed much respect for the torsos of her male cast by creating a soldier’s uniform, worn by most men in the production, that reveals strong bare chests and shows the lean, lithe figures of the warriors.

Jerold R. Forsyth’s lighting is in kind. Cregan uses it well to create moods, shadows, and standing within the royal house as well as day parts and general stage illumination. No choreographer or movement director is mentioned, but Cregan gives his production liveliness by having the chorus move in geometric patterns in periods of conflict or confusion or to gather closely when a situation is tense and fomenting terror.

Squib or not, I have gone through the back door with this review. Smart, appropriate touches enhancv Cregan’s production and move it solidly from literature and myth to theater than involves us, as Sophocles intended, with human dilemma. It is the depth and variety of the dilemmas that Cregan reveals so clearly and that draw us with full attention to the proceedings on the stage.

Sophocles and McGuinness give every character a case. Electra may elicit ultimate sympathy, if only because her grief and anger are justified, and because Agamemnon is cast as an heroic figure among Greek leasers whereas Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, from Aeschylus on, are regarded as villains.

That doesn’t mean Clytemnestra has no case to make or that Sophocles/McGuinness give her no chance to make it.

Clytemnestra, in a strong performance by Megan Slater, appeals to her daughter woman to woman. She speaks of Agamemnon’s treachery in sacrificing another of their daughters, and Electra’s sister, Iphigenia, to obtain a favorable winds so Greek ships could embark to Troy and war.

Clytemnestra is livid that her daughter, or any woman, could be thought of so lightly. Electra, taking the line ancient Greeks would, defends her father’s choice and says her sister died nobly. Clytemnestra counters her daughter’s life wasn’t worth a battle to revenge the adultery of her sister-in-law, Helen. To her, the war was male vanity and didn’t need to be fought, especially if it meant what she considers the murder of her daughter. Iphigenia for Helen is not a fair trade. McGuinness emphasizes Clytemnestra’s modern point of view.

Does her grief, though, excuse the murder of Agamemnon, or revenge that, by ancient Greek tradition, must lead to other revenge, namely the murder of Aegisthus, and Clytemnestra, by Electra’s brother, Orestes, who is in hiding and rumored dead as “Electra” proceeds.

Beyond the basic story of the myth, Cregan conveys power at work, parental and political power. He sets his production so you understand and can takes sides with the nature of revenge. You see totalitarianism at work. Electra cannot just leave the palace and grieve, or plot, in private, She, as a princess, will live in the royal quarters, albeit as a drudge or a prisoner. Clytemnestra will cite a case for wanting to be in charge, for eschewing being the queen to Agamemnon’s king but a ruler in her own right, with Aegisthus, first cousin to Agamemnon and legitimate Atrian heir, as her consort. Orestes will plot to foil his mother and her lover, even at the expense of adding to Electra’s grift. Chrysotemis will be the classic middle child, trying to create logic that will bring peace to her parents, Aegisthus standing in for Agamemnon, and her siblings. She would like Orestes to avenge her father’s death, but until and unless that happens, she doesn’t understand why Electra can’t accept Agamemnon’s murder as a fait d’accompli and live in harmony with the reality that exists instead of mourning and carping and making waves that could lead to her, Electra’s, doom.

Cregan’s production is rich in texture. It illuminates all Sophocles says classically and McGuinness translates with some contemporary slant. This is a thoughtful, thought-provoking production that makes one want to see more ancient Greek plays.

I worry I dismissed Kara Krichman as Electra when my single complaint was range of voice and some misplaced emphasis in line intent (something that is rampant in Philadelphia theater).

Krichman earned your regard and makes a strong, earnest bid for your sympathy as Electra. She manipulates your emotions with her character’s sincerity and patina of goodness. You see Electra’s misery and how it haunts her.

Dan Cullen was a wonderful surprise as Aegisthus. Though he, like much of Cregan’s male ensemble is slight of build, he conveyed size and majesty that eluded him last season as Banquo. Cullen also gave his male castmates a lesson in how to speak in a classic piece. He shed traces of regional accent and spoke in a timbre that suggests power.

[Villanova Theater at Vasey, Lancaster Pike west of Ithan Avenue] September 20-October 2, 2016; villanovatheatre.org.

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