May 25, 2001
For more about Lynn Trenning, please visit her main page.
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Talented teens in hip black clothing bring the two one-act plays, Electra and Orestes, screaming into the 21st century. It's equal parts of symmetry and chaos. Originated by Sopholcles and Euripedes, respectively, these ancient Greek chronicles of the tragically capricious lives of the gods are both horrible and amusing. Performed by the Ensemble Company of Children's Theatre of Charlotte, the age-old stories of murder, revenge and lust are injected with the emotional passion of adolescence, under the innovative direction of Alan Poindexter and the inspired choreography of Delia Neil.
The plays share actors and a set, and are actually two of a nine-show marathon called The Greeks, adapted by John Barton of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Poindexter takes the opportunity to introduce a new generation to the pre-Christianity definition of morality, guided by the Greek mythological hierarchy of power, beauty, war, insanity and... well, more power.
The stage resembles a galaxy, all black, with a backdrop of three thin white curtains on the left, right and center stage, and a black light that creates a nebulous movement of wispy purple light dappled with stars. The Chorus, dressed in what I suspect are the fashionable black clothes out of their own closets, introduce Electra with a retelling of her story. Wretched and wracked, Electra is obsessed with a desire to revenge her father, who was murdered by her mother, Clytemnestra, and her stepfather Aegisthus.
The play's dialogue is almost ridiculous in its tempestuous and simple darkness. Electra, played by Deirdre Pfeiffer, is the personification of angst, portrayed with a repeated ritual of teeth gritting, hair pulling, frowning, maniacal laughter, and bipolar highs and lows. While amusing, the role gets a bit tired, but is refreshed, during the absurd "rest of the story" presented in Orestes, by her fairly incestuous infatuation with her brother Orestes, who has been ordered by the god Apollo, to kill their mother and her husband.
The audience played an unplanned part in the evening's drama. It was composed of a refreshing mix of teenagers, their parents, and their parents' friends. When Orestes, who Electra believed was dead, reappeared, Electra's sexually charged hysteria noticeably shocked the audience, who, it was obvious, knew the actress. As the audience watched her wrap her legs around him in a coital position, and stare rapturously into his eyes while her lips trembled a centimeter from his, they giggled nervously. Was she was actually going to kiss her brother? Ick! The acting was powerful enough for the audience to be pretty grossed out.
Three of the Chorus members transformed themselves with silver jester's masks into The Furies, whose writhing, twisting forms represented conscience, fear and payback. One of these, Sharon Doku, also played Leda, the mother of the eventually murdered Clytemnestra. This girl packed a wallop. Her physical assault on Orestes for the murder of her daughter brought gasps of sympathy from the audience. The Furies were hellishly frightening, moving like octopuses to strangle the breath from the guilty.
Both plays are visually ecstatic. Much of the dialogue is performed perfectly in chorus, often with corresponding hand movements and subtle steps, danced arrestingly in sequence. Heavy breathing in unison becomes an atmospheric chant. The three-piece suit worn by Ben Horner, who displays admirable comic timing as Menelaus, beautifully juxtoposes the stark black set. Both plays soar in their final moment when the stage is overtaken by a cacophony of physical movement. In Electra, the Furies and Chorus intervene to bring the murderers to justice. Main characters are partnered with their black clad torturers and the stage becomes alive with modern dance.
In Orestes, a complicated ballet-like composition stars Helen of Troy, played by Erin Perkins. As the personification of beauty, dazzling amongst her darkened cohorts in a spectacular white gown, Perkins leapt from one olympic ice dancing pose to the next, with her John Travolta-like partner, Apollo, played by Zeke Johnston (obviously well known by the audience).
The play begs the question, where does Greek theatre belong today? It is the genesis of so much of the modern stage. Yet the plot line, where the gods tell man to kill mother in revenge of evil father's death and then damn him with guilt, lacks any of the layers of gray that modern religion and psychology have introduced to the morality game. The character names are hard to remember, and the characters themselves are one-dimensional. I appreciate the role of Greek drama in education. On the stage, this performance provided a vehicle for directorial inspiration and spectacular body movement. Perhaps if early immersion in Greek theatre sparks a life-long passion for the stage, the exercise is not a waste of talent. Ultimately, it affected me more as an exciting piece of dance, than as a drama.
Lynn Trenning, May 25, 2001