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Review: The Dallas Theater Center’s Outdoor ‘Electra’


by Jerome Weeks 21 Apr 2017

Old wine, new bottle, spilled blood: It’s the DTC’s attempt at re-inventing a classic Greek tragedy – with headphones, some candles and an impressive view of Dallas at night.

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Kevin Moriarty aims to revitalize, re-ritualize ancient Greek tragedy for digital-age Dallas.

Electra’ presented by the Dallas Theater Center through May 21st in Annette Strauss Square.

What director wouldn’t? With his ‘free adaptation’ of Sophocles’ ‘Electra,’ the artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center hopes to invest the ancient tragedy with the kind of mythic, civic and emotional force it once held. But this is not a stylish revival of Sophocles’ tale of revenge and justice set in some sterile white box with electronic dance music and LED lights. Moriarty took the inventive gamble of staging ‘Electra’ outdoors in the heart of the Arts District.

Surrounded by skyscrapers and art palaces, this could be our modern equivalent to what the Athenians might have seen when the tragedy was originally staged at the open-air Theater of Dionysus. On the slope of the Acropolis, their city was laid out in front of them. Moriarty has added modern dress and an electronic update: Audience members wear wireless headphones as we move from site to site in and around Annette Strauss Square. We hear not just the onstage characters; we listen to the spirit of King Agamemnon (Alex Organ) who performs the function, more or less, of the Greek chorus, bemoaning, beseeching, blessing.

Moriarty sees himself as a ‘big idea’ director, and this entire interactive, city-at-night staging is like PunchDrunk’s immersive ‘Macbeth,’ the one called ‘Sleep No More.’ It’s the kind of large-scale gesture and technical challenge Moriarty’s drawn to – akin to turning the Wyly Theatre into a football field for ‘Colossal.’ Or sending theatergoers off in bump-em cars in ‘The Wiz’ to toodle along the Yellow Brick Road.

Outdoor immersive theater on this scale is a novel and ambitious experience – and with headphones, to boot. Knowing the bureaucratic hurdles and wrangling restrictions the Meyerson Symphony Center and the AT&T PAC must have thrown at anything this unconventional, some serious plaudits are in order. It’s a daring, striking but yes, sputtering and clunky effort.

Moriarty clearly wants to Say Something Profound About the State of Dallas in a Tragic, Ceremonial Form. Good for him. But to give one example: The director reverses the Greek tradition of keeping the violence offstage. Towards the end, he confines the audience inside the Annette Strauss Square’s bunker-like support room. It lends the final murders a face-to-face intimacy. We’ve progressed — or perhaps declined — from the wide-open amphitheater down into this narrow, utilitarian tunnel to witness some bitter bloodshed. In effect, we’ve gone ‘backstage’ to see what the Greeks never did.

Then we all walk back outside – in single-file – to the Winspear’s reflecting pool to perform a toro nagashi, the Japanese ceremony of floating paper lanterns downstream to help guide ancestral souls to the afterlife. With a cool evening, with ordinary people encircling the dark pond and placing (battery-powered) candles on its mirror-flat surface, the entire moment – from procession to contemplation – makes for an undeniably peaceful, glimmering moment.

That is, if you don’t mind being herded around by an army of ushers. You also might want to ignore much of what’s being said on the headphones. True serenity does prove to be elusive.

Annette Strauss Square, facing the unfinished 1900 Pearl tower

Annette Strauss Square, facing the unfinished 1900 Pearl tower. All photos: Karen Almond.

The fact is it’s difficult to invent a new ritual, a set of meaningful words and gestures that have the heart-cracking impact of catharsis. Think of political conventions with all their pre-ordained balloon-drops, all the accompanying punditry and video firework. These are, indeed, rituals – repeated actions intended to make a statement, to celebrate and elevate, to connect the moment to our lives. To make the spoken words manifestly real. But it takes a rare convergence of rhetoric, events and a political leader to achieve anything remotely like that. Mostly, we just roll our eyes or change the channel.

Onstage, rituals are like re-enacted, collective memories. They pull us into shared meanings by transporting those meanings from the past to the present. Offhand, I can’t think of any that are battery-powered.

Seriously, there’s little in our contemporary, touch-screen culture with any narrative so central and so solemn that it could provide an equivalent to the tragedy of the House of Atreus. Maybe ‘Star Wars.’ Or perhaps our Civil War and civil rights struggle. For the Athenians, this epic was the whole ball of wax, not simply a family brawl re-enacted as entertainment. It was military history elevated to national religion and origin myth, it was ethical philosophy and municipal politics being debated and brutally fought over onstage.

It was, of course, a familiar story. The Trojan War, Part III: The Post-Traumatic Fallout. When King Agamemnon returned to Mycenae after defeating Troy, his wife Clytemnestra murdered him to live with her lover, the usurper Aegisthus. (Curiously, the program for ‘Electra’ locates us in Argos — which was Aeschylus and Euripedes’ setting for their versions of the story. Sophocles’ script locates it in Mycenae.) For years, daughter Electra – the primal resentful teenager – has vowed to avenge her father’s murder and now learns her brother Orestes – whom everyone thought was dead – has finally come home with retribution on his mind as well.

Sophocles wrote his version in the shadow of Aeschylus’ ‘Oresteia’ trilogy, performed some 40 years earlier and even then considered by the Greeks to be one of their lasting, literary monuments. Quite the precedent to go up against. What Sophocles brought to Aeschylus’ story was his famous austerity. He honed the myth down by creating relentlessly driven characters with a fury for justice. He sharpened the stakes, especially in the great face-off between Electra (Abbey Siegworth) and Clytemnestra (Sally Nystuen Vahle). Unlike Aeschylus, Sophocles grants Clytemnestra something of a fair case by stressing the king’s killing of their daughter Iphigenia. He sacrificed her to the goddess Artemis to let the Greek army finally set sail for Troy. ‘Artemis must have blood! Obey, obey or a heavy doom will crush thee … Law is law!’ as Calchas, the seer, cries in Aeschylus’ version. Agamemnon chose his brother’s grievance about losing Helen, plus his own need not to lose face in front of his soldiers — Agamemnon chose these over his young daughter’s life.

editAbbey Siegworth in DTC's Electra - Photo by Karen Almond

Trust me. She’s really just warming up: Abbey Siegworth as the title character in ‘Electra.’

It’s much the same choice parents make when we send our children to war: We sacrifice them. Clytemnestra’s accusation of calculated, cost-benefit murder makes her less an adulterous back-stabber. It balances the mother-daughter argument more, tipping it back and forth like a vicious cross-examination.  So – how does one disentangle justice from revenge and family grudges? Electra eventually doesn’t give a damn: She declares outright she’s more than willing to use evil to counteract evil.

While Moriarty is an ‘idea’ director, he’s not proven himself a particularly effective ‘actor’s director.’ With strong women, he basically sets them on ‘Take No Prisoners, Level 14’ and never has them downshift into anything more subtle. His forays into Greek dramas are prime exhibits. In Moriarty’s remarkably torrid, muscular version of ‘Oedipus el Rey,’ Sabina Zuniga Varela (who played Queen Jocasta) at least had the opportunity to take a break from all her gangland machisma to unveil a needy, lonely, mature woman. In his unattractive but undeniably fierce ‘Medea,’ Sally Nystuen Vahle played the title character as a walking blunt-force trauma.

She does much the same here against Siegworth. Non-stop rage and resentment are wearying for people to watch and listen to (much less perform), and Sophocles knows this. It’s why both his Chorus and Electra’s sister Chrysothemis (an appealing Tiana Kaye Johnson) provide (ineffective) voices of caution and common sense. It’s also why some of Siegworth’s most affecting moments come when Electra suddenly opens up with tender disbelief because Orestes (Yusef Seevers) has seemingly come back from the dead. At last, we all can take a breather. Ditto with the ruse that Paedagogus, Orestes’ loyal servant, spins out about Orestes’ purported demise. All the shouting stops, and we get this gripping cinematic action sequence, as actor David Coffee vividly recounts a neck-and-neck chariot race to the death.

Otherwise, it’s as if all Moriarty can do is try to find new outlets for these characters to let the rage rip: He has Siegworth attack a trash can. OK. So we half-expect her to heave it across the lawn like a professional wrestler. Or stomp on it like a beer can. Instead, she plucks out a few crumpled wrappers and strews them about. Perhaps Moriarty wants us to see Electra’s long-searing grief as fundamentally childish or ineffectual — because that’s what this looks like: a tantrum.

Agamemnon's tomb

Orestes (Yusef Seevers) and Paedagogus (David Coffee) at King Agamemnon’s tomb in ‘Electra.’

The director and his actors probably felt the need to fill up that football-field-sized lawn with some arm-flinging emotions. The smaller, more enclosed scenes at beginning and end are the effective ones. Brilliantly, Diggle, the scene designer, has created brutalist-concrete walls and white-neon abstractions that evoke Sophocles’ rock-hard style and the sun-baked Mediterranean setting – as well as the Arts District’s own sharp, bone-dry architecture. Diggle’s slabs are as bold and modern as a Louis Kahn masterwork and as primal as an old stone temple — especially in the first scene at Agamemnon’s tomb, which looks as though it was simply trucked over here from the lobby of the Meyerson. Along with Broken Chord’s ominous but restrained underscoring throughout, Diggle’s stark designs make this ‘Electra’ open with a sharp beauty and a chilly awe. The music and the set pieces are the strongest, shrewdest elements of the entire production.

And then there’s Dallas itself. With this ‘Electra,’ Moriarty’s main shot at contemporary relevance and civic significance is his fundamental tactic: He uses the entire Strauss Square and the city skyline as his setting. This ancient story is happening right here. If you wish to Uber over there, it’s across the street from valet parking for Stephan Pyles’ Flora Street Cafe. What could be more Dallas?

So let’s consider the city surroundings and what they say, however unintended or ironic. We enter the amphitheater by walking past a small shrine to one of our local deities: a white Lexus GS Turbo with the FSport package. Lexus, of course, is a major sponsor of the AT&T Performing Arts Center. In ancient Greece, it was common for homes to have a small statue of a good-luck god near the entrance. But this automotive product placement is impressive, a display fit for a palace. The car is elevated on a beautifully lit, angled platform, the better for our inspection and adoration. I felt remiss. A bad omen: I’d not brought Lexus-Dionysus an offering.

As we enter the amphitheater, we can see, across Woodall Rogers, the outline and lights of that sacred American temple, the Federal Reserve Bank. And during the performance, when Electra occasionally shouts a curse to the heavens or in the general direction of her mother’s house, Siegworth seems to aim it at 1900 Pearl, the unfinished tower that looms over the entire drama. It’s a skyscraper that a number of Arts District fans hate for blocking a major view of the Meyerson, for crowding in on Strauss Square’s own expansive airiness, for adding yet another blue-glass, office building to a downtown that doesn’t really need more and, finally, for paving over one of the last small bits of green space left in downtown. For them, it embodies much of what went wrong with the Arts District and what’s still wrong with Dallas’ development priorities. So there’s a long waiting line willing to join Electra in shouting curses.

I’m not simply having fun mocking things here. I have to believe Moriarty is well aware of how spectacular this view is, what it lends ‘Electra’ with its wide display of urban wealth, commercial energy and aesthetic sterility. Why else would he go to all the logistical troubles of rain dates and headphones and ushers to stage ‘Electra’ like this – in a location that shouts Here is Dallas in All Its Ambitions and Flaws?

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Tiana Kaye Johnson as the more cautious sister, Chrysothemis.

In David Grene’s translation of ‘Electra,’ Orestes expressly states at his father’s tomb that he’s come to purify and restore his home country. There may be no plague in Mycenae — as there is in Thebes in Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus’ — but Greek tragedies established the trope of opening with a city that’s unwell, troubled, burdened. The palace stands in for the entire citizenry. It’s a metaphor that runs through Shakespeare (“Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark”) to Ibsen, Chekhov and Shaw (“This soul’s prison we call England. She will strike and sink and split”).

But while Moriarity has gone to all this trouble to place ‘Electra’ practically in our town square, I’m not sure what, if anything, he wants to say about the State of Downtown Dallas – other than it makes for a splendid backdrop for a piece of theater. Perhaps that the town needs healing of some sort. What town doesn’t? But what kind of healing? For what?

Any healing that Sophocle’s tragedies have to offer is healing of an especially searing kind. When we come to the final killings that will restore the House of Atreus, Electra dreams of an axe felling a tree. Agamemnon was murdered with an axe, and Aeschylus specifies Orestes uses a battle axe against both Aegisthus (Tyrees Allen) and Clytemnestra. (Indeed, facing off against her son, Clytemnestra calls out for her own battle axe — way to go, Mom). But staging two axe murders in full view of an audience crowded into a medium-sized room is not an easy bit of fight choreography to pull off convincingly. Limbs need to be lost. Instead, Seevers uses a dagger – which is a little disappointing. All this build-up, all this spitting at each other about bloody murder, and we get a couple of minor, back-alley stabbings.

But Moriarty seems to want this anti-climactic feel: The evil couple end up as just another pair of corpses.  They’re heaped on the ground like trash about to be put out for pick-up, covered by plastic sheets with a small bit of blood smeared on them. So it goes. Sic semper tyrannis. And as we know, this isn’t the ending-ending. Moriarty has – he hopes – a calmer resolution in mind.

During the killings, a second disappointment comes when, having howled for most of an hour, Siegworth speeds past perhaps the two most blood-curdling words in all of Sophocles. Imagine: As was the tradition, Clytemnestra is offstage when Orestes heads after her. The Athenians hear her screams, hear Orestes’ battle axe smash her, hear her cry for pity. Electra shouts back: “You had none for him! Nor for his father” – and she watches offstage what the audience can only imagine.

Another scream. Silence. Then Electra urges her brother: “Strike . . . again.”

Now that’s some chilling, murderous hatred.

I bring up the butchery because it took Aeschylus three full plays to work out all his issues with justifiable regicide and with the Furies, the primordial gods crying for vengeance. Ultimately, he opts in favor of Athens’ trial-by-jury as a divinely ordained solution (besides, in ancient Greece, a woman’s life was worth less than a man’s). Sophocles, on the other hand, sets up the basic moral arithmetic in tragedy after tragedy: Only bloodshed will expiate, only death will restore order. Don’t look to gods or civic institutions – “blood to answer blood,” as Electra says. Not simple revenge, but sacrifice. In such tragedies, the evil are destroyed but the good will suffer (and often die) trying to achieve some modicum of justice. That’s ‘Hamlet.’ That’s ‘Othello.’ That’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and ‘The Crucible.’

And that’s why Sophocles’ ‘Electra’ ends so abruptly, almost like a rebuke to Aeschylus’ extended moral wrangling through two more plays. The evil king and queen are killed, and David Grene’s translation has the chorus immediately state, ‘O race of Atreus, how many sufferings were yours before you came at last so hard to freedom, perfected by this day’s deed.’

‘Perfected.’ Quite the claim for a screaming double homicide. There’s Sophocles’ austerity for you. When the killings are done, that’s it, he declares, History’s over. We cauterized the wound. This house is cleansed. You may exit on the right.

But Moriarty just can’t leave this anguished family quarrel with such an abrupt, blood-splattered finish. He’s typically favored forward-looking, uplifting consolation in his endings, not soul-shattering desolation. So we head out on our candle-lit procession and wend our way to an attempted sense of, well, serenity is far too strong a word. Resolution, then, the feeling that all the shouting and stabbing were worth it and everyone’s going to come out A-OK somehow.

We hear Alex Organ as Agamemnon relate the characters’ various futures: what happened to Orestes, what happened to Electra, which character got married, who went into real estate. It’s like those ‘whatever happened to’ summaries during the end credits of a movie, suggesting a sequel. And then we hear Agamemnon’s “favorite story” about all this: Iphigenia was never sacrificed in the first place. (This is, in fact, a variant Greek myth originating in Homer.) The goddess Artemis rescued her and replaced her with a deer.

It’s a lovely thought. But it makes nonsense of what’s preceded it. First, if Iphigenia was never killed and a deer was sacrificed in her stead, wouldn’t Agamemnon know? Wasn’t he there, stabbing the deer or his daughter? What did he think he was doing? Or is this a case of Schrodinger’s daughter being dead/not dead – it’s just Agamemnon offering us simultaneous alternatives to make us feel better? Choose one, it doesn’t matter. That’s not much to build on for solace. And if we take it as fact, the replacement story means the king never slaughtered his daughter. So there goes Clytemnestra’s justification for killing her husband (well, there was that reason, plus Agamemnon bringing home his consort, Cassandra). But it’s also one of Orestes’ reasons for seeking vengeance. No revenge, no real tragedy. You may exit on the right.

We’re left with a disjointed production, an ushered promenade all around Strauss Square, above ground and underground, onstage and off. For what it’s worth, we do undergo an ambitious, participatory theater experience — which, by the end, doesn’t provide anything like a city-wide catharsis.

But then – who gets one of those these days?

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