Electra's Company

The mother of all misery: Electra (Cheryl Maher) and Clytemnestra (Dona Werner Freeman) share a Hallmark moment

Iphigenia and Other Daughters
Hidden Theatre

As the audience wanders into the Southern Theater before Iphigenia and Other Daughters, a woman in a negligee rolls listlessly about the stage. She twists her hair in her fingers, dips her hand in a shallow pool of water, and stares at nothing in particular with glassy-eyed indifference. A similar malaise hangs over the remainder of Ellen McLaughlin's emotionally spartan retelling of the Oresteia cycle, which is now making its area premiere under the direction of Hidden Theatre's Annelise Christ. The Trojan War is over, its heroes buried and its gods fallen silent. In the melancholic aftermath, the daughters of Agamemnon, marooned on some desolate seashore, are left to mourn their dead and endlessly contemplate their place in history's tide. Theirs is a twilight world in which even the wind is notable only for its absence.

McLaughlin, who is best known as the original seraph in Tony Kushner's millennial swan song Angels in America, condenses the long, lurid fall of the House of Atreus into a 65-minute triptych of tragedies. In the first segment, culled from Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis and set at the launch of the war, the Greek fleet has been stranded by divine spite and Agamemnon has been ordered to sacrifice his first-born daughter. Iphigenia (Tracey Maloney) first appears as an angelic figure in white, framed by a crumbling gray colonnade (the centerpiece of a traditional Greek tragedy set, designed by Cindy Freet). Behind her, a group of cowled figures rises out of the shadows in preparation for the bloody deed. Iphigenia is young and beautiful, but already possessed by a sad sense of fatalism. "In a windless place," she laments, "everything is eternal and bland. Nothing can be changed here."

As the silent figures surround Iphigenia, the lights fade and the scene shifts forward in time to the house of Agamemnon, where the survivors of the doomed clan are circling each other like starving dogs. The era is indeterminate: The play is purportedly set somewhere between the two world wars but McLaughlin peppers her prose with anachronistic references to Jell-O and dry-cleaning to underscore the fact that the women of Atreus exist outside of history. They are trapped in a script preordained by Sophocles, Aeschylus, and myriad subsequent male authors. As the original story dictates, Clytemnestra (Dona Werner Freeman) has murdered her husband, Agamemnon, in reprisal for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. She is a woman of action, chillingly indifferent to her two surviving daughters, Chrysothemis (Annelise Christ) and Electra (Cheryl Maher). "While you were doing finger exercises at the piano," Clytemnestra tells her girls, "I was running a country. I have always been at the center of the drama."

If the murder of the patriarch makes Clytemnestra the natural center, Chrysothemis is a natural footnote. Played by Christ with blissful dispassion, she bustles about exhorting the women to forget the sins of the father and resume their domesticated place at the periphery of the script. She is the voice of female self-doubt and the antithesis of Electra, who first appears with smudged cheeks and a loop of rope around her ankle, digging graves in a tiny patch of dirt that passes for a garden. Electra is sure of her place in the drama. She is both the living shadow of grief and the avenging angel destined to bring Clytemnestra to justice for her crime.

Electra presents a peculiar problem for a feminist retelling of The Oresteia--she has, after all, been co-opted by everyone from Freud to O'Neill as a model of passive femininity. Like Hamlet, she is caught between the thought and the deed, unable to take up arms against her oppressor because of her gender. She can only speak daggers to her mother and wait for the arrival of her brother Orestes to set the world right. Electra seems only dimly aware that her "justice" means continuing the cycle of violence. As a figure of implacable grief, she is more Hamlet than Ophelia, feigning insanity, sparring verbally with her mother, and brooding over her planned revenge. Indeed, when the war-torn Orestes (Jeremy Kent Jackson) arrives, the sexually charged Electra is ready to incite the token male to violence.

In the wake of the mother's murder, the scene shifts again to Euripides' Iphigenia in Tauris. Iphigenia, it seems, was spirited away by divine intervention before the sacrifice and left upon a desolate isle with a chorus of willowy vestal virgins. They are to kill any male intruders and, of course, their first visitor is Orestes, uniform still stained with his mother's blood. In a scene that drips with melancholy, Iphigenia changes the script by turning herself into a statue and promising her brother endless sleep. Orestes lifts her on his shoulders and they freeze beneath the ruined columns. The cycle is broken, but the price is oblivion.


Iphigenia and Other Daughters runs through July 18 at the Southern Theater; (612) 340-1725.

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