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Theater Review Stellar cast makes this ‘Electra’ electricBy Joseph Hurley

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

‘ELECTRA,’ by Sophocles. Adapted by Frank McGuinness. Directed by David Leveaux. Starring Zoe Wanamaker and Claire Bloom. At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

Frank McGuinness can, by all evidence, rise to just about any challenge he’s offered. The 45-year-old Donegal-born playwright and scholar is one of the dominant forces behind the magisterial production of Sophocles’s "Electra" which has opened on Broadway after a highly praised stand at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre.

Not to slight the work of director David Leveaux and certainly not the brilliant "Electra" cast headed by Zoe Wanamaker and Claire Bloom, much of the credit for the brilliance of this particular staging can be traced directly to the clear, powerful, refreshing adaptation written by the playwright from Buncrana.

McGuinness’s version is, perhaps above everything else, wonderfully speakable, with none of the unwieldy locutions over which actors so often stumble in more conventional treatments of classic works.

To be sure, there are a very few moments in which McGuinness’s "Electra" seems a little bit too "speakable," one of them coming early on when Stephen Spinella, in an unusually strong performance as the loyal old servant of Michael Cumpsty’s powerful and eloquent Orestes, refers to an unseen character as one of his master’s "bosom pals." These small blips are exceedingly rare, while 99 percent of McGuinness’s text flows with the grace and crystalline clarity of a mountain stream.

The playwright, best known to American audiences as the author of the long-running 1992 three-hander, "Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me," achieved something of a minor miracle two seasons ago when his version of Henrik Ibsen’s "A Doll’s House" ran a full season on Broadway. An old theater joke maintains that the best way to capsize a rival producer is to urge him to mount an Ibsen revival.

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McGuinness’s contribution to "Electra" may well help Leveaux’s splendid production achieve the sort of run that "A Doll’s House" enjoyed. It will certainly play a part in adding actress Wanamaker’s interpretation of the title role to the rarefied ranks of the greatest performances within memory.

Adroit and gifted as the actress is, she might not have made quite the impact she has without the great help of McGuinness’s fresh, flexible new text, every moment of which is as evocative as it is revealing.

When the grief-racked Sophoclean heroine is first seen, she is crouching in a niche of the beige brick wall of designer Johan Engels’s imposing set. Until she moves, she resembles a forest monkey clinging to the wall of a Japanese temple, surveying the world from a position of temporary safety. She wears a featureless white mask, reminiscent to an extent of those used in Japanese Noh plays.

Descending the wall, she removes the mask, setting it aside until the play’s final moments, when she retrieves it from the clutter beneath the broken table, which is the set’s centerpiece, and dons it again, resuming, perhaps, her self-protecting anonymity.

Director Leveaux and designer Engels have placed this "Electra" in a rubble-strewn courtyard, with a timelessness underscored by placing fragments of a fallen column of ancient origins alongside the shattered remains of three chairs dating from the 19th century.

"Electra," of course, is part of the tortured story of the House of Atreus, probably the most dysfunctional family in the history of literature. Electra, Orestes and Chrysothemis are the children of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, the king who led the Greek army to war against Troy. When the gods demanded a sacrifice in order to grant Agamemnon the victory he desired, he slaughtered his daughter Iphigenia.

Sophocles’s 2,400-year-old tragedy opens with the return to the city of Orestes, who had, as an infant, been sent away to safety by his sister Electra. While Agamemnon had been at war, Clytemnestra had taken ‘gisthus as a lover, and the pair had murdered the king upon his return from battle.

Orestes’s reappearance is the engine which puts Electra’s lust for revenge into play, allowing her to realize the murderous goal that has fueled her life since the death of her father.

When actress Wanamaker first appears, wearing an olive drab military overcoat several sizes too large for her. It takes only a moment for the audience to realize that the massive greatcoat had once belonged to Agamemnon, and survives as an enduring symbol a daughter’s imperishable rage.

Director Leveaux, inspired by events of recent years, and particularly by the suffering of so many of Central Europe’s children, has put "Electra" through an intense, but nevertheless subtle, "Balkanization," extending to the "peasant" headscarves, here reduced in number to three, only one of whom actually speaks.

The speaker, here called "Chorus of Mycen’," is played with considerable power by Pat Carroll, a performer best-known, perhaps, as a regular on early TV variety shows, and, later on, for her long-running one-woman show, "Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein."

Actress Bloom, dressed from neck to toe in scarlet, is a staggeringly beautiful Clytemnestra, a beacon of blazing color in a production otherwise notable for its muted tones. The veteran actress subtly suggests the self-indulgence and libidinous ego that help to explain the motivations of a woman who aids in the murder of her husband and incurs the wrath and hatred of her children.

Frank McGuinness, one of the few working dramatists equipped to use the original Greek text, has everywhere stressed and underscored the role played in the lives of his Sophoclean characters by the terror with which they regard the gods and the awesome power of fate.

"Electra" represents a major triumph for McGuinness, and will, in all likelihood, result in at least a few Tony Awards, perhaps equaling the four won by "A Doll’s House" last season.

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