by Brian Edward, ‘Burgh Vivant
In the current climate of theatre in America, the staging of ancient Greek and Roman plays has become a tricky business among the trends of 90-minute shows and economic casts of three to four actors. They have at times been dodged by producers and audiences alike, presumably due to the fear of the pieces lacking appeal. Shakespeare suffers a similar treatment to some degree, though it seems he’s been spared the level of avoidance that has befallen the ancients of Greece and Rome. The dilemma is almost inconceivable when considering that these works were the original blockbusters: immensely popular in their time and influencing all drama and comedy to follow for hundreds of years. To argue that the premise or period of any such work is dull, boring, or uneventful is fruitless when considering the numerous serial dramas that have borrowed from them and found their way to millions of weekly watchers through HBO and Showtime, among other subscription networks who have peppered in just enough sex and violence to insure mass appeal. So were then is the disconnect between the Acropolis of Athens and the modern stage? I refuse to concede that the answer lies simply in the absence of blood and nudity. Instead, I believe it to be in the translation.
When Sophocles wrote Electra circa 400 BC, the very concept of theatre as it is known today was in its infancy. Storytelling had evolved to form a more dimensional means of presentation and thus, the actor was born. Despite the razzle dazzle of movement, characters, and chorus, plays were still in the habit of telling a story rather than allowing one to unfold realistically before an audience. Many plays of the era were mired in exposition, leaving it to an actor to monologue events that happened, were happening, or were going to happen, rather than producing them. When accurately translated, these scripts don’t leave much room for compelling dialogue or interesting staging that most modern audiences might expect in a night out at the theatre. Adaptations tend to be more palatable, but deny us the glimpse of how these stories were originally told. It’s a classic “catch XXII.”
The production of Electra staged by Little Lake Theatre Company, as well as its translation by Robin Bond, can boast authenticity as one of its stronger points. Bond’s text recalls Sophocles’ tragedy of Electra (Rachel Pfenningwerth) who with her brother Orestes (Brendan Karas) enacts vengeance upon her mother Clytemnestra (Ponny Conomos Jahn) for the murder of her father, King Agamemnon. Director Jena Oberg makes good use of the theater-in-the-round and minimal set, keeping the tale focused and moving throughout one 90-minute act.
Bond’s accurate translation takes little liberty in the use of poetic language, and on top of Sophocles’ narrative approach to dialogue, stifles the enjoyment of the story. When this equation manifests in performance, the line between drama and melodrama becomes a fine one that is straddled precariously throughout. The cure for this comes by way of Ponny Conomos Jahn’s performance as Clytemnestra and Carly Adams’ performance as Electra’s sister Chrysothemis. Both actors illuminate the text and the stage with irrepressible presence and a thorough mastery of their roles. In their handling of the language, the inherent dust that can sit upon the delivery of ancient Greek drama quickly vanishes. Even Jahn’s stillness while berated by Pfenningwerth’s Electra emanates great power.
When engaged beyond the role of set dressing, the Chorus, comprised of Mona Bapat, Kerry Benson, Ina Block, Lexi Feldman, Kathi Finch, Heather Friedman, and Gretchen VanHoorelbeke, presents itself as a strong ensemble and compliments the stage action well.
SEE IT FOR: An authentic treatment of an ancient Greek tragedy. The performances by Carley Adams and Ponny Conomos Jahn.
Electra continues at Little Lake Theatre through July 13. For tickets and more information, visit www.littlelake.org