Sophocles' familial revenge play was updated in 1997 with a new translation by Frank McGuinness (who'd already done Ibsen and Brecht). In the first ten or fifteen minutes, this latest revival seems to walk on the stilts of ceremony, but it gains satisfying power once the two chief adversaries come to meet: Michelle Hand, in the title role, forges her character in brighter and brighter fires after her first face-off with Nancy Lewis as Clytemnestra. Above all, I think it is Ms. Lewis' regal (faintly swaggering) Greek queen that goads Ms. Hand into a maddened fury. The older woman's crocodile tears over her husband's death are a frightening blend of sobs and wicked chuckling, the cleverness of which makes her a daunting opponent.
To recap from Theatre 101, Electra plots revenge on Clytemnestra and her new husband, Aegisthus, for the murder of her father, Agamemnon. Electra's brother, Orestes, makes a comeback from exile for similar reasons, with a plot twist or two along the way. Brendan Allred, as Orestes, registers strength and goodness, with a fine Greek handsomeness (costumes by Amy Leone). Robert Ashton is Aegisthus, wary and chilly in the final moments, as he makes his way to a blood red curtain, up-center.
Joe Koerner, as Orestes' tutor, opens the story with an ancient chant, as Mr. Allred holds a grimacing mask over his face. Later, Mr. Koerner's account of Orestes' demise is thrilling and terrible. I was warned more than once that the production was marked with a modern style, but I was perfectly content that I was seeing a pretty authentic updating. The stage is a web of tilting pillars, implied by high-tension wires, and more wires like suspension bridges, stretched to their limits, foretelling of ruin.
Director Steve Callahan (who also designed the set) reveals a flair for tableaux, involving the chorus of servants to Electra (Julie Stockhausen, Jill Ritter, and Jea Hyun Rhyu). The foursome clusters here and there, in uphill or downhill slopes of mournful black robes on jagged steps. Mr. Callahan pits mother and daughter against one another like darting cobras, and enlivens mystical prayers and tales of heroic chariot racing with compelling background music. The stylized poses of his cast become indelible when accompanied by various musical recordings (sound design by Chuck Lavazzi).
Ms. Hand's finest moments in a demanding and satisfying portrayal include her tribute to her younger brother, pouring his ashes over her own head, and later blowing a small cloud of that silvery dust forward, just shy of the front row. She pays very good attention to the meaning of her lines, which are born of burning passion. As her sister, Karen Palmer brings a dash of mental health to the proceedings, even as Electra tries to inveigle Chrysothemis into matricide.
Ms. Lewis, as Clytemnestra, is deliciously patronizing toward her aggrieved daughter, and the Apollo of her prayers. A slight simpering as she lists her catalog of woes puts things into sharp focus for the viewer. And as they say, a melodrama is only as good as its villain. This Electra proves the rule in Ms. Lewis' luxuriating performance.
Electra runs through February 13 at The West End Players' Guild, Union Avenue Christian Church in the Central West End. For more information, call (314) 367-0025 or visit www.westendplayers.org. The show runs about 100 minutes in length.