Classical Theater of Harlem founder Alfred Preisser has said he wants to tease out the “present moments” in classic Greek plays, and at its best, his adaptation of Sophocles’ “Electra” feels utterly contemporary. Thanks both to his expressive direction and effectively updated language, the production’s first scenes play like a fresh indictment of the way foreign wars destroy the people left at home. Eventually, however, stylistic flourishes overwhelm him, leaving a conclusion as muddled as the opening is sharp.
Preisser devotes roughly a third of his one act to each of Clytemnestra’s children. She, of course, is a queen who killed her husband after he sacrificed their daughter before heading to war. The production opens with Clytemnestra (Patronia Paley) laying in bed with her lover Aegisthus (Lyashenko). Her chamber is a pristine vision, shielded by a gauzy white curtain, while across the stage, her daughter Electra (Zainab Jah) hovers over an open grave, covered in filth and dreaming of the day her brother Orestes (Samuel Ray Gates) will avenge their father’s death by killing their mother.
Primal intensity fuels the moments when Electra rages against a chorus of female friends who tell her to stop living in the past. Wearing a grimy baby-doll dress, Jah boils with righteousness, spitting out Preisser’s current-but-not-slangy text. She makes it a noble act to wait for her brother and stew in her own bile.
Jah’s fire is matched by Paley’s cool disdain when the women have a lengthy debate over whether Clytemnestra deserves to die for avenging her murdered child.
Preisser’s staging reminds us their argument has cosmic proportions. The actors use ritualized gestures, and Paley’s make-up resembles a rainbow-colored kabuki mask. The background is filled by the four chorines shuffling and whispering as they eavesdrop, providing the scene with a type of nervous soundtrack. A bloody dagger hangs just over Jah’s head. We learn it’s the one Clytemnestra used to kill her husband, and as it twirls on its piece of wire, just out of reach, it evokes a family defined by suffering.
After this taut exchange, the play moves to a comic middle section anchored by Electra’s sister Chrysothemis (Trisha Jeffery). Neatly groomed in a little girl’s Easter dress and obsessed with serving her family tea and finger sandwiches, her blithe self-delusion becomes the chipper counterpoint to Electra’s hatred. Preisser expands the character from Sophocles’ text, and Chrysothemis becomes an effective reminder of how easily we can convince ourselves there’s nothing wrong in our homeland.
The production gets shaky when Orestes arrives. As written, he’s almost a non-entity, devoid of clear thought or motivation. For instance, he pretends to be a messenger who says Orestes is dead, but it’s never clear why he opts for this ruse. Since he drops the lie almost immediately, it’s really just a pointless distraction.
Preisser adds to the confusion by making Orestes a solider in an unnamed war. Obvious cotempo allusion aside, this unnamed conflict is still too vague to resonate. The same is true of Gates’ perf, which seems broad and undisciplined next to Jah.
It’s likely Preisser wants to show us a soldier who has lost himself in battle and so can be manipulated by anyone. There’s even a hint that Electra uses him to kill Clytemnestra so she herself can gain power. But that’s only a guess. A finale this ambiguous could mean almost anything.