Back in ancient times, tragedy was prized for its cathartic experience; fear, rage, pity, the whole range of human emotions would run through you, and on a grand scale, too, with thousands packed into the grand marble theaters of Athens and Rome.
So imagine all that passion crammed into a tiny space; one row of seats, actors entering and exiting all around you, with the action – and the blood – practically spilling over into your lap. That’s the experience that awaits you in 4615 Theatre Company’s new adaptation of Sophocles’ revenge tragedy, Electra. Nick Payne’s finely-chiseled adaptation of Sophocles’ original play gives you all the raw emotion, the motivations, and the complex moral universe of the original Greek myth. And with a stellar cast, it is one of the most immersive experiences you will find anywhere in the D.C. theater scene.
The story of Electra was a popular one back in theater’s early days – she was the daughter of the Greek warrior-king Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. She grew up in a palace in Mycenae, near Sparta – where Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus ruled alongside his famous bride, Helen.
The Trojan War, prompted by Helen’s abduction from Sparta, was Agamemnon’s responsibility; but because of the arrogance of hunting deer in a grove sacred to the gods he was forced to sacrifice Electra’s sister, Iphigeneia, to atone for his sin before the Greeks could set sail for Troy. This left Electra, her mother Clytemnestra, her surviving sister Chrysothemis, and baby brother Orestes, at home to grieve, and to wait ten long years before Agamemnon’s return.
Clytemnestra, in her rage and solitude, took on a lover; and when Agamemnon finally returned (slave-concubine in hand), she took her revenge on her husband, slaughtering him in his bath. And for years thereafter, Clytemnestra and her lover ruled Mycenae, while Electra (a Hamlet prototype, by the way) insisted on mourning and lashing out against her mother at every turn.
Now, because Orestes was the heir his status was doubtful; for his own protection he was sent away and grew up in a strange land. The action of the play Electra resumes some years after Agamemnon’s murder, when Orestes returns in secret to avenge his father’s murder and take his rightful throne. Electra’s surviving sister, Chrysothemis, has chosen to play the role of dutiful daughter in public—a role Electra categorically refuses.
I have to remind you of this story, dear reader, because it tells you how high the bar is for the actors in this production; and I am pleased to report that the cast more than meets the challenge.
Niamh O’Connor’s Electra simmers with rage and helplessness from the moment she emerges from yet another sleepless night. Mackenzie Larsen’s Chorus serenades her (and us) with some truly haunting melodies, and stands as silent, restless witness when Queen Clytemnestra—the regal Lolita Marie—enters to set the record straight. Jacqueline Chenault, meanwhile, gives us a truly conflicted Chrysothemis, a realist who is damned no matter what choice she makes; her survival in the palace’s toxic environment means that she will never be trusted by Electra.
Director Stevie Zimmerman makes skillful use of the intimate space, and Nathaniel Sharer and Jordan Friend create the appropriate marble and ivory space (inflected with torn crimson curtains) to remind us of the story’s heritage. But for me the coup du théâtre comes when Marie’s Clytemnestra sits right next to O’Connor’s Electra to recount the day of her daughter’s murder all those years ago. Both remain motionless as Clytemnestra seethes, describing in vivid detail every agonizing step in the betraying of Iphigenia. Electra, helpless, stares silently into space absorbing her mother’s hatred; helpless, but still filled with a murderous rage of her own. The whole tragedy crystallizes as you see their emotions pour forth, side by side.
Patrick Joy makes a kindly, tall and gangly Orestes, and he exudes the innocence of a young man who knows what he has to do, but who is as yet untouched by the bloody madness of his clan. Charlie Cook, khaki-clad, makes a nice foil as his comrade Strophius, perhaps the only sane person in the room.
It is small, emerging companies like the 4615 Theatre Company (a name that is also an address) that remind us how a determined circle of artists can blaze brightly. If you need a fix of the old Greek magic, the Highwood Theatre just off of Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring is the place to be.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.