by Byron Woods
I love it when a theater review heralds the arrival of a new artist or a new work of art.
Sorry, but this isn’t one of those. Instead, we have more of a report from the road that director / adaptor / designer Chip Rodgers is currently exploring. His certainly audacious—and, at times, extremely frustrating—new adaptation of the ancient Greek drama ELEKTRA, whose workshop production runs through Sunday at Meredith College’s studio theater, is a work that can only be said to be in process. Still, presently, it’s headed in a most interesting direction.
We find in its torturous discourse an examination and critique of a psychologically land-locked age that should look hauntingly familiar to present-day audiences. Its inhabitants remain preoccupied with a search for true meaning and emotional and ethical authenticity, while being perpetually distracted by contingency and plagued by indecision and self-doubt. At several points, the modern language the work is housed in recalls the conversationalisms novelist Don DeLillo uses to indict the glib, reductive and facile grasp his modern characters have when it comes to contemporary dilemmas.
But, as also happens with DeLillo, Rodgers’ characters wind up talking past each other an awful lot—so much so, in fact, that the trait veers from the merely irritating, well into the theatrically problematic.
It's clear that this young, alternative-theater triple-threat, who impressed in last spring’s atmospheric staging of Hungry at Meredith, is on the trail of big, generational issues. Unfortunately, it’s just as clear that a number of fundamental script, character and performance-oriented questions haven’t yet been solved in this still-developing work.
One of the foremost of these is the challenge of keeping a title character theatrically compelling when she does little more, on the face of it, than whinge her way through most of the production. Mahamantra Das’ self-absorbed Elektra suggests the dilemma of Narcissus, but without the attraction. Having slept until the break of noon, she sulks from the start in a blue silk kimono, curled up in an upholstered chair; drowning in privilege, incapable of action. Father Agamemnon’s long dead, at the hands of her mother and step-father, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Brother Orestes has been missing ever since.
The circumstance mostly leaves her with plenty of time to kvetch, as she does at some length in a first extended monologue. Under Rodgers’ direction, it was an airless recital of lines on Thursday night that was too rushed and too pat for believable conversation. By the end of that largely colorless laundry list of grievances and favorite things, we were already reminded that directors depicting ennui on stage run the very real risk of creating that condition in an audience.
Again, we’re entirely willing to believe that such communication issues lie at the heart of this family’s dysfunction. But the question remains: How do you script and stage them in a theatrically functional way?
In repeatedly stressing that she actually does love and care about a very small list of things, Elektra mostly convinces us that she usually doesn’t love or care very much, and that this situation bothers her. It’s telling when she says, during a brief punk poseur phase, “I want to be the kind of person who really feels something.” The words themselves indicate the degree to which her character believes she generally doesn’t.
Orestes (guest artist Julian Hester), who we first meet during a lengthy and similarly too-pat back-seat rap session with their cousin, Pylades (child actor Jai Das), isn’t much better off. When he admits, “I want to feel a lot,” adding “I’m emotionally available,” it’s clear he isn’t getting an awful lot of traction on similar issues.
Unfortunately, neither is the audience.
By the time Orestes says in a later confrontation with Elektra, “I’m giving you my entire being here…like an open wound,” it’s not only transparent that he isn’t; it’s also clear that he and she both have little more than the vaguest notion of how to do so.
These and other lines throughout the work speak to characters who remain frustratingly disconnected from the deepest of emotions and convictions. Though their words indicate otherwise, their feelings and ethics rarely run much more than skin deep.
On the basis of the script and these performances, Rodgers seems to be crafting an Elektra for a community of characters who largely appear to be suffering from attention deficit disorder or milder parts of the autism spectrum. Some, like Orestes and the title character, hunger for deeper feelings, connections, meanings, even as they rarely demonstrate much of a capacity for them. Other characters, like Krysothemis and the amusingly vapid chorus members played by Elaina Mittleman and Meredith Davis, swim more or less contentedly in the shallows.
It’s a controversial gambit, to say the least, and one with potent implications for our culture and time. But for it to be effective, Rodgers has to figure out how to generate and sustain our interest and compassion for the characters caught in this social and psychological predicament. As his characters prattle on in a script that is presently repetitious and numblingly logorrheic, that frequently isn’t happening here.
The striking, notable exceptions (which fully demonstrate what this work could achieve) occur in scenes where memories connect these characters with true emotions. Elektra recalls constructing a relationship with her absent brother out of their correspondence when she was younger. Orestes remembers considering the island of his exile as a representation of his sister. As home movies play, another character meditates on what happens when an older brother comes home.
Other moments convey rewarding emotional content and wit. Actor Jai Das (and an offstage interlocutor providing vocals) gives us chills when Pylades relates the death of Aegisthus. Krysothemis is gifted with several meta-moments in which she critiques conventions of Greek drama even as she’s fulfilling them. In the midst, characters check their cell phones, call unresponsive boyfriends and scan the night skies for portents—most of which now speak to global warming.
Most of Rodgers’ design choices are crisp, and underline the artifice of what’s before us. A group of actors and the odd tech hand busies themselves or hangs out on Lex van Blommstein’s institution-gray industrial staging area, just prior to the swift precision of assembly that begins the first scene. Most never leave the set; discreetly playing cards, camping out, or getting a little web-surfing in along the edges as the scenes play out. Rodgers’ sound design, incorporating Gavin Price’s mostly subliminal original score, adds needed ambience throughout. Only a daring—but fundamentally miscalculated—musical sequence for Orestes seems very much astray.
Still, at present writing, the vivid moments related above mainly serve to underscore the general sense of disconnect almost everywhere else in this Elektra—not only among the characters on stage, but between us and them. That’s a problem. Here’s hoping Rodgers solves it.