I’m honestly not trying to work towards any sort of theme during my weekends at the theater, but this weekend the shows I saw were once again of a singular bent: that being the Greek Tragedies of that old pervy bastard Sophocles. In each case, the plays I saw were updated to bring a quasi-modern feel to them.
The first was The Electra Project at the University of California, Irvine. If I hadn’t read the program, I would have thought this show was a lot less pretentious than I do. It is pompously referred to as an “anthropological experiment” on their website and writer Guy Zimmerman is douche-tastically called the “Dramaturg” by the bleeding font in the program. But I suppose I don’t want to call this kettle too black and so I shall digress.
The show is directed by Mihai Maniutiu – apologies for not being able to figure out the Romanian characters – and it combines the classic story of Electra (here bravely played by Leslie Lank) with ancient Romanian folk music performed by The IZA Group, creating an interesting result. As you enter the theatre the cast is already lying on the stage, clad in homeless rags and wrapped in blankets awaiting the beginning of the show; it officially starts when Electra’s mother Clytemnestra (Caitlin Brook) enters and places a curse upon her son Orestes by doing unspeakable things to a rocking horse. Off to a good start, then.
Theatre as an art form should make strong use of imagery, and this play does: several images stick with you from the show including that rocking horse, full of knives; yet another vivid and memorable moment is that of a body, riddled with stab wounds being loaded onto a shopping cart; and another is the ragged cast circling around the redheaded Electra and painting the likeness of an axe onto her naked back. When it comes to symbolism, this play delivers. The use of the Romanian folk music to create an atmosphere is also a good one and the costumes are evocative in a way that Chapman’s Hamlet only wishes they were. The set is sparse: only a giant pendulum constantly swinging in the background prevents this show from being an entirely black box affair.
The Electra Project feels incredibly short; indeed, it only runs about seventy minutes. Goddammit, UCI, your plays cost a lot of money and so does your parking, you owe me more than seventy fucking minutes. Nevertheless, the fact that I’m lamenting that the play was too short must be a good sign; I was left wanting more even if I felt a bit cheated and thought there must be more story to tell. This was all the more notable since the most interesting member of the cast, Kevin Shewey as Aegisthus, appears for only a few minutes, dancing around and spitting like a champion whilst delivering his lines, before having the absolute crap stabbed out of him. Yes, that’s it! Stab more motherfuckers! I paid to see stabbings, dammit, this is Ancient Greece and I’ve played God of War- Oh, the play’s over? Shit. Onto the next one, then!
The next one, which I attended Sunday night, was another reworking of Sophocles: The San Diego Rep’s production of Oedipus El Rey, a modern-day adaptation of Oedipus Rex set in the Mexican barrios. Here, young Oedipus (or Patos Malos as he’s often called, a sort-of translation of his name from Ancient Greek into Spanish) is a gangbanger freshly released from prison, eager to prove himself on the bustling streets of Los Angeles. The Chorus are portrayed by Oedipus’ fellow inmates, who also appear under masks in a dream sequence as a bunch of prophetic Mexican owls and in various other roles throughout the show.
This show features some hardcore nudity during the scene where Oedipus unknowingly “makes pork with” (as Jack and Billy would say) his mother Jocasta. The main thought on my mind for this – other than “BOOBIESBOOBIESOHMYGODBOOBIES,” of course – was that these actors were incredibly brave. The lad playing Oedipus, Lakin Valdez, who also fights and dances in this show, has some serious acting chops as well as balls (and I have seen both displayed onstage).
Having recently viewed a more traditional version of the story for my Theatre Appreciation class, one of the thoughts that ran through my mind was curiosity regarding the Sphinx, the monster whose riddle Oedipus solves in order to save Thebes and get himself crowned king. How would they do this on a modern stage? I wondered if “Sphinx,” or the Esfinge as it’s known in the barrio, would be a nickname for a troublesome, riddling drug dealer that Oedipus must defeat or something – but instead, it appears as a genuine monster in one of his dreams, played as a three headed creature by three members of el Coro. I guess that’s cool, but since he doesn’t actually defeat a Sphinx, we lose the aspect of the tragedy that sees him beloved by his people, and the overly arrogant ambitious Patos Malos is now much more a victim of extreme hamartia rather than being a mostly good man simply cursed by fate. Not that this is a bad interpretation, mind you, but it does make for a show that’s sometimes more Scarface than Sophocles.
As I attended on a preview night, the production I saw was plagued with technical difficulties, most notably the damn microphones that the actors wore. I have used those exact microphones in productions I have been in, and they… well, dear reader, they just suck. They create feedback loops, interference, loud crackling I thought were thunder sound effects, and are generally an all-around disaster. I question why, in a relatively small theater such as the Lyceum is, such microphones are needed at all. When Oedipus’ flew off of his head, I could still hear him just fine; after all, these are actors who are trained to make themselves heard, in a building designed to carry sound. Lose the mikes, I say, and it will make your play better and your lives easier. Besides the microphone debacle, there was the moment where Jocasta’s brother Creon attempts to take up the mantle of King and is immediately shot. After a second-long delay, blood flew out of his body and, from the looks of it, into the audience (who audibly gasped). I’m not sure if this was intentional, but it brought to mind my viewing of Re-Animator: The Musical and what I’ve heard of its predecessor Evil Dead: The Musical (which I hope to see in Vegas soon) with their over-the-top gore requiring a splash zone for the audience. I’m not sure it’s appropriate for this show.
One thing I will heap praise on is the program for this show: it features information about the cast and crew as well as facts regarding the story of Oedipus and the American prison system; for example, did you know that up to eighty percent of imprisoned gang members will return to prison? Well, now you do. Apparently also twenty-three percent of Americans admits to having at least one tattoo (although I’m not sure why this is relevant, I have at least one tattoo and I am not in a gang; the FBI has informed me that Primitive Screwheads needs more members and to do more shit before we are considered one). Anyway, I thought the quality of the program was noteworthy considering so many programs suck ass – like the ones on Broadway are just lazy shite. Seriously, fuck Broadway programs.
Anyway, to summarize, I quite enjoyed the show despite the technical hiccups, and especially the performance of its lead; it is a worthy update for this classic tale. Also, the Lyceum validates parking, so take heed, other theatres (coughUCIcough). I’m glad to see Greek Tragedy is still alive, even if all of these actors together could not equal Denis O’Hare doing this by himself.
Thank you for reading the bizarre ramblings of this mad theatre nerd; I hope to return next week with more. Stay tuned!