Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's reviews of Don Pasquale and R. L. Stine's Goosebumps, the Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium
Ten Thousand Things' stirring mounting of Electra zeroes in on the misery of a life ruled by hate and the desire for vengeance. While this vengeance is framed as a form of justicebringing suffering upon those who make us suffer, a logic as old as "an eye for an eye" in the code of Hammurabi, even pre-dating its Old Testament appearance in Exodusit is also part of a never-ending series of violent reprisals back and forth, each justified by the perpetrators' desire for "justice", each leading the victim in turn to feel that they are now the aggrieved party, with their own right to their "justice". For example, it was Electra's father Agamemnon's sacrifice of her sister Iphigenia to garner support from the gods for going to war against Troy that brought anguish to their mother Clytemnestra, leading her to take a lover and slay Agamemnon upon his return from the war. Her lover Aegisthus thus becomes king. To allay fear that Electra's brother Orestes will exact vengeance when he reaches maturity, he is banished. You see where this all leads?
In Euripides' Electra (his contemporary, Sophocles, scripted his own variation of the Electra tale), the fallen princess (Audrey Park) seethes in anticipation of the opportunity to seek her revenge. In the city to which he was banished, Orestes (Kurt Kwan) has received direction from the gods that he must take vengeance on his father's murder, and so travels back to his homeland. It is not until Orestes and Electra are reunited that Electra is empowered to action. Their plan is plotted and carried out, despite Clytemnestra's argument that her deeds were merely vengeance for the wounds Agamemnon's inflicted upon her, and thus should be forgiven. Their revenge complete, Electra and Orestes have a brief celebration before convicting the siblings of their own crimes for which they must now atone. There is no way to know when, if ever, the cycle ends.
The tortured emotions conveyed by Electra and Orestes are given balance by a trio of chorus members who provide commentary, and on occasion step into the action. Michelle Barber, Thomasina Petrus and Karen Wiese-Thompson form this chorus with a detached observers perspective, viewing it something like today's celebrity gossip. They don't minimize the outsize emotions of Electra's predicament, but more because fanning the flames of discontent offers entertainment than because they have genuine regard for the poor thing. This creates a bit of a split personality for the production. It is deadly serious when Electra or Orestes are at the center, as well as when Clytemnestra (played with fierce arrogance by Michelle Barber) makes an appearance. It feels like a droll commentary on the foibles royalty fall into when the chorus is featured, eliciting chuckles and softening the cutting force of the play.
Audrey Park is an emotional tempest as Electra, creating storm winds of discontent and despair as she bemoans her fate, cyclones of demonic glee with the prospect of vengeance, and even genuine affection when reunited with her long-lost brother. Though reduced to a peasant's status, she is condescending and ungrateful toward the gentle farmer who weds her, giving her protection while not forcing consummation of the marriage upon her. The farmer, played with gentle strength by Mikell Sapp, is the first actor we see on stage, and the last. The vanities of the high-borne inevitably lead to their falltheir positions of power ascend and descend, transitory forces that flame outwhile the farmer, who tills the earth, brings forth its sustaining yield, and lives in a state of constant simplicity, endures. Kurt Kwan is highly charged as Orestes, exuberant upon reuniting with his sister, fiercely resolved to fulfill the gods' prophecy to avenge his father's death by slaying King Aegisthus, yet able to convey moral ambivalence on the question of killing Agamemnon, his own mother.
Ricardo Vazquez, a terrific actor, is given little to do as Pylades, Orestes' boon companion. In addition to Barber's turn as a haughty Queen Clytemnestra, chorus member Karen Wiese-Thompson has fun portraying the aged tutor who helps Electra identify, beyond a doubt, that the man who stands before her is indeed her brother, whom she has not seen since childhood. This part has been crafted, if not by Euripides, then by the play's director and adapter, Rebecca Novick, to offer comic relief that releases some of the overheated dramatic tension. Peter Vitale's live contributions as music and sound director are essential elements of the production.
True to form for Ten Thousand Things, Novick has mounted a pared-down staging of Electra, with a bare suggestion of sets, though allowing great imagination and craftsmanship in Trevor Bowen's costume designs, and Abbe Warmboe has created some wonderfully gruesome props. The play is performed in a square surrounded by the audience under full house lights. Such a spare production allows it to go beyond more traditional arts venues into settings that reach audiences with little, if any, access to live theater, both urban and ruralincluding community centers, shelters, adult literacy programs, libraries and prisons.
I attended a daytime performance at the Harbor Lights Center, an adult homeless shelter and services facility on the edge of downtown Minneapolis. Judging by appearances (there is no way to really know), I would guess a third of the audience (of about 30) were typical theatergoers like myself, the others Harbor Lights' guests and clients. The atmosphere during the performance was less formal than typical at a play, with some audience members nonchalantly leaving and returning during its 70 minutes duration. Audience members responded knowingly to Electra's righteous indignation at the play's opening, identifying with the feeling of being mistreated by life, but grew more visibly shocked by the extreme deeds later in the play, as if realizing the slippery slope that occurs when raw emotions are allowed to guide actions. There seemed a sense of relief at the play's end that the characters we are meant to sympathize with will live to see another day, though there are indications their days ahead will continue to be fraught with suffering. This is perhaps the reality of life for some in the audiencethe future holds no security or safety net, and just surviving through the day is a victory.
Ten Thousand Things never ceases to astound me with the invention of their staging, the game enthusiasm of their actors, and their ability to whittle a work down to its essential elements. In a political climate where power-grabs and retaliation have become the norm, and a civic environment where blame and consequence have become more natural than problem-solving, Electra offers a work of theater that touches us by laying bare the world in which we live.
Electra plays through October 22, 2017, at the Indigenous Root Cultural Arts Center, 788 East 7th Street, Saint Paul MN and October 26, 2017 - November 5, 2017 at The Open Book, 1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $30.00, Pay what you can, $10.00 minimum, for those under 30 with ID. Free tickets for all remaining Community Performances are "sold out." For tickets and information, call 612-203-9502 or visit www.tenthousandthings.org.
Playwright: Euripides; Adaptation and Director: Rebecca Novick; Music and Sound Director: Peter Vitale; Costumes: Trevor Bowen Sets: Theresa Akers; Dramaturgy: Kira Obolensky and Michaela Johnson; Production Manager: Nancy Waldoch; Stage Manager: Celeste Cahn; Assistant Director: Michaela Johnson; Production Intern: Madeline Farley; Producer: Michelle Hensley.
Cast: Michelle Barber (Chorus 3, Clytemnestra),Kurt Kwan (Orestes), Audrey Park (Electra), Thomasina Petrus (Chorus 2, Polydeuces), Mikell Sapp (Farmer), Ricardo Vazquez (Pylades), Karen Wiese-Thompson (Chorus 1, Tutor, Castor),