Greek tragedy is extremely difficult to do well, and attempting to bring it out of its original time and place is often problematic. MetroStage in Alexandria, VA, is staging Sophocles’ ancient tragedy Electra using the colloquial 1997 adaptation by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness that Zoe Wanamaker headlined in London and on Broadway. However, aside from Jennifer Mendenhall’s wrenching performance in the title role, this production has problems.
Director Michael Russotto has chosen to set the drama in a neither-here-nor-there jumble: as designed by James Kronzer, it’s a picturesquely barren patch, scattered with trash, surrounded by barbed wire, with a vividly painted Greek temple façade upstage. Electra (Mendenhall) is not only a prisoner of her rage and desire for bloody vengeance, she is also a literal prisoner, with an ankle bracelet that sets off alarms and shuts the gate when she approaches too near. (This does provide a nifty bit of turnabout near the end of the 90-minute play.)
For those unfamiliar with the story, Electra is the daughter of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, who was murdered upon his return from the Trojan War by his wife Clytemnestra (Maura McGinn) and her lover Aegisthus (Brian Hemmingsen). They now rule as king and queen. Since Electra has neither the resources nor sufficient strength to avenge the murder herself, she awaits the return of her brother Orestes (Ted Feldman), who has been living in exile to keep from being killed himself.
Mendenhall’s performance is feverish, almost feral, and she commands attention. If there’s a problem, it’s that she brings out Electra’s exhausted rage at the expense of sorrow, disappointment, or any other emotion. The other issue is that, in her grandeur and the dimension of her performance, she stands far above the rest of the cast.
Electra properly wears worn, filthy army fatigues and boots, perhaps her father’s clothes. (Among the relics she keeps of him are his Marine cap and his battle ribbons.) But Russotto, and costume director Debra Kim Sivigny, are much farther from the mark with their conception of some of the other characters.
Clytemnestra deserves her dignity. While it’s true she was unfaithful to Agamemnon, she also had a righteous grudge against him: she killed him in return for his sacrificing another of their daughters to propitiate the gods before fighting in Troy. However, instead of giving her “the look of a queen” cited by a visiting messenger, Sivigny has costumed McGinn in capri pants, a sheer turquoise sequined blouse, and strappy gold sandals. Similarly, Hemmingsen wears a pinstriped suit and resembles nothing so much as a mob enforcer. And while the concept of making the Chorus (Kate Debelack, Debra Mims, and Doris Thomas) household servants – housekeeper, maid, and retired nursemaid, perhaps – fits the setting, why on earth are they wearing nametags?