By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
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.
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.