I suspect it’s rather unusual for a professional regional theatre to mount a production of a Greek tragedy (and because painting my daughter’s bedroom is on the agenda today, I’m not going to take the time to verify that suspicion…but I’d be happy to be corrected by someone who wants to hunt that stat down!) So the Pittsburgh Public Theater deserves credit for its commitment, since 2001, to serve up on a regular basis (what I also suspect many would agree is) the “brussels sprouts” of theatre fare — delightful when prepared well, but unbearable when done the way we remember from our childhood (readers over 40 will know exactly what I mean). Moreover, in a market in which the competition for the ticket-buyer’s dollar must be quite fierce, the inclusion of one of the lesser-known Greek tragedies in its season seems a sign of the Public’s trust in its audience’s intelligence and taste — and a heartening indication that this relatively small rust-belt city has cultivated an audience that’ll take an occasional serving of veggies along with its meat, potatoes, and Yuengling.
As far as helpings of brussels sprouts go, Electra (directed by Ted Pappas) falls somewhere in between the mushy, overboiled, bitter item some of us have had the misfortune to encounter in our past, and the crisp, sweet surprise on our plate that not only redeems itself but makes us wonder why we don’t ask for it more often. Sophocles’ script is spare and tight — the story, of Orestes & Electra’s revenge against their mother Clytemnestra & her lover Aegisthus for the murder of their father, Agamemnon, is told here with more efficiency than in Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers, and with more focus on Electra than Orestes — and Frank McGuinness’s translation of the play is wonderful. The language is direct and lively, with the occasional spot-on colloquialism that allows the dialogue to pop (“Spin this yarn,” Orestes (Michael Simpson) tells his servant (the very fine Edward James Hyland), when instructing him to go into the castle and deliver the news that he has been killed, prompting the servant, later in the play, to invent an incredibly vivid and lurid account of the chariot accident that took Orestes’ life).
The production supports the tautness of Sophocles’ story. Pappas’s direction is clear and precise; if you tend to avoid Greek tragedy because you find that it’s hard to follow the action, you’ll have no worries here. The scene design (James Noone) depicts a stark world — the action takes place in front of a high and foreboding curved wall, on a floor of gray stone, all of it suggesting how heavy, authoritative, and repressive Electra’s world has become. But some scenic elements puzzle: An angled disc on the floor gets used by the actors a lot, but what does it signify? Heavy chains seem to hold the walls up, but what are they attached to above? Clouds? Gods? (They do allow for a cool moment when the wall lifts to reveal Clytemnestra dead on a berm, but I’m not sure that justifies the physics-defying oddness of their presence). The lighting design (Kirk Bookman) serves the story nicely, too, making palpable Electra’s frustration and anger at what she perceives as her own helplessness and despair. The sound design, by Zach Moore, was appropriately dark, ominous, and percussive, and I’ve decided that I have to start a fan club because I have now seen three productions in which his sound stood out: his versatile, subtle work consistently demonstrates a keen sensitivity to the mood and tone of a given play.
The role of Electra is a difficult one to take on: as my colleague Ingrid Sonnichsen observed, it’s basically one long “ginormous” rant. Catherine Eaton’s performance in the role is powerful, but she, like the rest of the cast, tends to fall into the sing-songy elongated vowel diction that I associate with my minds-eye cliché of Greek Tragedy (my faaaaather, ooohhh gaaaahds, etc). This is, unfortunately, one of the elements that nudges the production towards the mushy overboiled brussels sprouts end of the veggie spectrum I mentioned earlier (and you thought I had abandoned that metaphor, didn’t you?). Another is the costumes — some work well, but no audience member should be as curious about where the characters bought their shoes as I was.
There are some really electric moments in the production — the confrontations between Electra and her sister Chrysothemis (Catherine Growl) crackle, and Lisa Harrow is regal and forbidding as Clytemnestra — and it may be unfair to ask for much more from a genre that seems to dictate its performance style so strongly. That said, I was disappointed not to be confronted with a more daring and unexpected production style — something akin to tasting brussels sprouts prepared by a master chef for the first time — that would prompt me to ask: why don’t I get this more often?