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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

September 23, 1998. All rights reserved.

Review: `Electra’ at McCarter

Toward the end of the second millennium a change

occurred in the world. It happened in the Mediterranean, and we are

still living with its effects today. People ceased worshiping the

Goddess who was Mother earth and began worshiping the male God of the

Sky. It was this period of supreme deity swapping that inspired

Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus to dramatize, from their own

angles, the tragic myths surrounding Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Electra,

Orestes, and the Trojan War.

The power of women is once again unchallenged, omnipotent, and

knows-no-mortal-bounds

in Frank McGuinness’ immediately accessible translation under David

Leveaux’s astonishing direction. Well, anyway, that’s how I felt

watching three Goddesses of the stage — Zoe Wanamaker, as Electra;

Claire Bloom, as Clytemnestra; and Pat Carroll, as the chorus of

Mycenae — strut their stuff in this stunning production of

Sophocles’ "Electra."

Wanamaker, who won the Olivier award for her performance in this

version presented at London’s Donmar Warehouse last fall, can take her

place alongside some of the greatest Electras of the stage from Katina

Paxinou to Fiona Shaw. The renowned British actress, perhaps best

know in the U.S. for her television roles on "Prime Suspect"

and Masterpiece Theater, is no less than spellbinding as she vents

Electra’s all-consuming rage.

Like a tormented animal, she is almost involuntarily consumed by the

need to make her petite frame scale the walls and ruins of designer

Johan Engels’ water-drizzled setting. Wanamaker is simply magnificent

as an Electra rooted in impassioned and wild madness. And yet

heart-breaking is about all I can think of to describe the tenderness

and poignancy Wanamaker embraces when called upon to mournfully caress

the urn she believes holds the ashes of her brother Orestes. Wow!

Bloom, whose acclaimed performances for over four decades on stage

— on Broadway in "Vivat! Vivat! Regina,"

"Rashomon,"

and "Hedda Gabler;" in film ("Limelight," "Richard

III," and "Look Back in Anger"); and most recently in

her one-woman show "Enter the Actress," yet to be seen in

New York) — is every inch a queen, if, as Clytemnestra, a

chillingly becalmed one.

In this eternally fascinating accounting of how hatred, murder, and

vengeance preoccupied the House of Atreus — a family that seemed

to relish carrying their emotions to extremes — Sophocles’

characters

give us a full share of conflicting emotions amid large dollops of

irony. A notably arresting performance comes from Marin Hinkle, who,

as Electra’s sister Chrysothemis, is not the least bit timid about

displaying her conflicting emotions.

Yet as we know, the play’s principal dynamic rest with Electra.

It’s not that Wanamaker is apt to give Electra much of a rest. After

all, if your mother murdered your father just because he killed, on

the advice of an oracle, your sister, and then took for her lover

her husband’s first cousin while the old man was away at war, wouldn’t

you get sore?

To be serious, which is what the tortured Electra spends all of her

time being during the years (for us it is only 90 minutes) as she

awaits her brother Orestes’ return from hiding, there is a delicious

combat of lesser consequences going on. This one is to determine which

diva will rule the stage. With the relentlessly brilliant Wanamaker,

flailing about in oversized beggar’s clothing, the regal and

authoritative

Bloom, alluringly flaunting her pride and passion in a scarlet gown,

and the glorious Carroll stirring up the doom and gloom atmosphere

in basic black, ancient Greece has never been whipped up by such a

frenzy of female ferocity.

Even Myra Lucretia Taylor and Mirjana Jokovic as the ever-present

but speechless distaff-citizenry (recognized as chorus) stir our

hearts

and minds with their intense involvement. Here is an Electra who

engages

scorn as high art, a Clytemnestra who justifies her bloodcurdling

deeds in sensual defensiveness, and a chorus with the power to provoke

even the Gods to abdicate.

Oh yes, the men. Michael Cumpsty, an imposing and impressive actor

always secure with the classics, has a chance to demonstrate the

prodigal Orestes’ tender side and his fury as he initially reunites

with his sister and then effects his revenge. As the old servant, a

white-haired Stephen Spinella has his moment of glory spinning out the

details of a fateful chariot race. The part may be small, but Daniel

Oreskes impressed me with his arrogant Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s

husband.

If Sophocles’ "Electra" appears atypically addressed by

Leveaux’s

staging, its spirit remains ancient Greek. Leveaux, who was lauded

for his direction of Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson in the

Roundabout’s

"Anna Christie," gives Sophocles what the old Greek must have

hoped for centuries ago: that the themes of his drama would remain

timeless. Only we and translator McGuinness, through his terrifyingly

real text, can attest to and validate the extremes to which a daughter

will go to avenge her father’s murder.

— Simon Saltzman

Electra, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,

609-683-8000. $25 to $36; $10 for under-25s. Continues to Sunday,

October 4.


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