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Classic Antics 

Jamming on Sophocles and The New Bozena

Wednesday, Feb 24 1999
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Photo by Erin FiedlerYou could say that Ruth Margraff's Sophoclean riff The Elektra Fugues (at the Ivy Substation) and the vaudeville troupe the New Bozena (goofing off at the Hudson Main Stage) are cut from the same ancient cloth. True, Elektra is a theme-and-variation on Sophocles' lament for the House of Atreus, while the Bozena derive from the kinds of clowns who might have parodied that lofty scribe in a satyr play at some Greek festival a couple of thousand years ago. But Elektra's Weltschmerz and the Bozena's wit have been percolated from the same classical Greek wellspring of grief, of the outsider's agony, of the exiled. Margraff treats all this with a kind of angst, the Bozena as a source of mirth. Yet the division between them is as thin as the hanging cotton sheets that, quite coincidentally, dominate the sets of both productions.

The Elektra Fugues is put on by the people at Bottom's Dream, a company that stages about one play per year. Prolific they're not, but they compensate with a kind of devotion and attention to detail that makes each of their productions an event. Furthermore, they work with playwrights -- Margraff, Mac Wellman, Erik Ehn -- whose proclivity for abstract, poetical language seems calculated to incense audiences who have come to rely on linear plots and stock psychological motivations. Sophocles' Electra is a straightforward drama, but you wouldn't know it after seeing Margraff's version.

At least Bottom's Dream was courteous enough to summarize the Electra legend in the program notes, not unlike the printed synopses that still accompany some foreign-language operas. Margraff had, in fact, conceived the event as an opera, of which this particular staging is a filtered version. The arias and duets, of course, have been removed -- or rather, the musical tones have been stripped away, while the sometimes overlapping operatic cadences are retained in the words.

In brief, then: Before setting off to wage war against Troy, and without bothering to consult his wife, King Agamemnon sacrifices the life of their daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis, who returns the payment with friendly breezes for his fleet of warships. Upon Agamem-non's return to Greece, he's murdered by understandably livid Queen Clytemnestra, with the help of her lover, Aegisthus. Two of Agamemnon's surviving children -- the raging Electra and her sister, the dutiful though emotionally torn Chrysothemis -- remain in Mycenae to brood upon their mother's deed; the third child, the boy Orestes, flees to parts unknown.

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It is years later that the plots of both Sophocles' play and Margraff's adaptation (which is staged in one 90-minute sitting) actually begin. In the latter, young Elektra (Alice Dodd) -- a spiky-haired punk -- rails against her boa-wrapped, emotionally imploding mommie dearest (the powerhouse Jennifer Griffin) while calling upon the videotaped image of Agamemnon (Gregg Daniel) to justify the sacrifice of her sister, and to help avenge his own murder. She's goaded by her perverted stepdad (the lanky Matthew Posey, in a brilliant vaudeville turn as vicious as it is pathetic), dressed as though he just stepped out of Boogie Nights. Meanwhile, the other sister, Chrysothemis (the suitably brittle Cheryl White actually doubles as both sisters), parades around like a '50s debutante trying to mask the symptoms of a cocaine rush, mediating the Elektra-Clytemnestra feud while figuring out her own loyalties.

The balance is tilted toward decisive action with the appearance of Elektra's seething, long lost brother, Orestes (Mike Hagiwara). Together, they plot murder. In Sopho-cles' play, Orestes' arrival is a lucid moment of ignition, with the machinery of revenge firing up for its inexorable lurch toward oblivion. In Margraff's version, the starter grinds rather than sparks as the rudiments of the plot get more lost than elucidated in the characters' lyrical rantings. Indeed, the "dialogue" consists of people speaking past each other, often simultaneously, in a montage of words and literary images. This may be a clever depiction of loopy contemporary discourse, but it's also one hell of an impediment to spinning a yarn.

Which would be grounds for dismissal were telling the Electra story Margraff's first concern. Clearly, it's not. Why else would she throw in the character of Oxford academic Gilbert Murray -- a passionate scholar and translator, played with gentle befuddlement by William Mesnik -- who yearns to "be married" to the forlorn heroine? (Though he resides temperamentally a million miles from her passion, he aches just to touch it.) Then there's the portable tape recorder, like the black box of a downed aircraft, that spews Agamemnon's text. Sophocles' play is about how the weight of vengeance destroys a family; Margraff's is about pulling body parts from the wreckage -- it's a puzzle by design.

James Martin's hypnotic staging, against set designer Susan Gratch's canopy of suspended white sheets, is as evocative as a dream. A metaphoric bed anchors the play's first section; later, that function is served by a divan. Eventually, as past crimes are exposed, the sheets are drawn back like curtains to expose cavernous depths. Meanwhile, certain dialogue passages are delicately punctuated by Kadi Kurgpold's live percussion, enhancing the trancelike atmosphere.

Dodd's fidgety, neurotic Elektra pales beside the epic sweep of Griffin's Clytemnestra or the intensity of White's Chrysothemis -- a discrepancy of style and power that would work against Margraff's play were it about traditional storytelling and psychology. But it's not. And it doesn't.

 

IF ELEKTRA AND HER SIBLINGS FEEL OUT OF SORTS with the world, so do the New Bozena -- a trio of young clowns (David Costabile, Michael Dahlen and Kevin Isola) in the Mump and Smoot tradition, sleekly directed by Rainn Wilson. But instead of killing their mum, these guys vent their angst by signing up with the Hidden Valley Community Theater for a Slavic-gibberish performance of the "Estonian classic" Winter Is the Coldest Season -- a parody of theatrical artifice along the lines of the mechanicals' unwitting lampoon in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The cruelty of Winter's director (Wilson's voice) -- a master of the "You Have No Reason To Live, Let Alone Work" school of encouragement -- toward the inept magician Ramon (Costabile) during his audition is at least as scathing as that of Clytemnestra toward her daughter. But where the Atreus clan understand almost everything -- except, perhaps, the workings of destiny -- the wigged and bubble-nosed Bozena are a species of idiot. As they enter and re-enter their communal abode (a lurid green cell decorated with a series of identical framed fish), stumbling upon an unfamiliar object -- a clock radio, for instance, or a guitar -- they recoil in terror. An entire farce unfolds through their tentative process of coming to grips with the foreign props. The world comes to us through these Bozenoids as through the antics and innocence of puppy dogs, inviting affection and laughter, versus, say, fear and trembling (unless you happen to be 3 years old, as was one patron on the night I attended; when the troupe gallivanted into the crowd, the child blanched in fright).

The New Bozena (the name of the show and the ensemble are the same) is a low-rent version of Bill Irwin and David Shiner's Fool Moon, in which the characters battle the caprices of a belligerent physical world: An accountant finds his pockets inexplicably stuffed with pencils, which, by skit's end, are raining down from the sky. A waiter trying to arrange a place setting does battle with a temperamental tablecloth. However, though hysterical in bursts, the Bozena are neither as polished nor as philosophically astute as Irwin and Shiner. Fool Moon featured a parody of a latecomer scrambling over the audience, grabbing faces and clutching arms, in order to find his seat, whereas the Bozena similarly claw their way over viewers, but apparently just for kicks, without a satirical point in mind.

A fair amount of hyperbole accompanies the troupe's arrival here. Press clippings from the Bozena's acclaimed New York debut coin the phrase "slacker vaudeville" -- as though they represent some new approach to clowning. Nonsense. Theirs are the oldest tricks in the world.

The New Bozena

The 20th annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards, with Circle X Theater Company, the cast of Naked Boys Singing!, Chris Wells, Karen Finley, Pasadena Shakespeare Company and others, will be held at the Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtown, on Monday, April 19, beginning at 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 7 p.m.); reception to follow. The posting of nominees can be found online at www.laweekly.com. Admission for all nominees plus one guest is free; for all others, $12. All queries and RSVPs can be made on the Awards hot line: (323) 993-3693. Please make checks payable to L.A. Weekly c/o Lisa Yu, 6715 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90028. Checks must be received by April 4.

THE ELEKTRA FUGUES | By RUTH MARGRAFF | Presented

by BOTTOM'S DREAM | At the IVY SUBSTATION | 9070

Venice Blvd., Culver City | Through March 13

THE NEW BOZENA | At the HUDSON

MAIN STAGE | 6537 Santa Monica Blvd.,

Hollywood | Through March 14

Classic Antics

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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