Theater Review Revue
Family Drama: Matricide, Parricide, Uxoricide, in That Order
Through Nov 1.
"Prophetess always of terror and nothing e'er came forth from me but curses without end—and fierce despair and frenzy." Scrawled in tiny slanted cursive, those lines shouldn't
be in my study score of Richard Strauss's opera Elektra, but a half-century ago on page 287, an anonymous copy editor embedded a crude yet poetic English translation of Elektra describing herself—and portending her fate.
Strauss (1864–1949) wreathes Elektra in dissonance, though not with the fractured angles of the avant-garde. Instead, Strauss matches her ruminations to giant, granite chords whose innards often writhe and squirm.
Elektra's first word in the opera is "Allein!" ("Alone!"). Unlike the archetypal Greek hero, she has no followers to win, no ascent, and no great deeds. Ensnared by her lust for revenge, she lives in gloom and horror in a palace with her father's murderer, her mother Klytämnestra. Elektra's heroic struggle is merely to resist by surviving.
Seattle Opera hews to the basics in this one-act, 100-minute opera. The set, a hulking castle alloyed with riveted steel plates and geologic strata of metal sheets, stifles movement. Characters predictably appear and exit left, right, and upstage (a secret door would have been nice). The singers, however, are uniformly good—I saw the "gold" cast on opening night and a dress rehearsal of the "silver" cast—though the tour de force belonged to Rosalind Plowright as the desperate and paranoid Klytämnestra.
Klytämnestra enters after a luridly Technicolor cortege of soldiers, flunkies, and an incongruously costumed witch doctor who combines the trappings of a Hopi kachina doll and Masai warrior. Despite the sloppily directed procession—a sacrificial victim exits with too little resistance—Plowright commands the stage. Stooped and hobbling as if enduring the ancient equivalent of chemotherapy, Plowright is spellbinding as she recounts her guilt-ridden nightmares in a wild-eyed, neurotic rasp: "My body cries out for death...."
Both Elektras, Janice Baird and Jayne Casselman, rage and fulminate well; Carolyn Betty girlishly animates the innocence of Elektra's sister Chrysothemis; and Alfred Walker is a regal, bass-baritone Orest, Elektra's heroic brother. In the end, Elektra triumphs and dances herself to death. Alas, the ill-conceived choreography—Casselman does a wine-grape stomp and Baird employs a staggered prance—fails to conjure any sense of crisis or doom. Elektra's dance should have been an exorcism, a chilling glimpse into the abyss of Pyrrhic victory. CHRISTOPHER DELAURENTI
Bobbie and Jerome
Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center
Through Oct 26.
This new play about two African-American men—cousins and ex-junkies who work as stonecutters for a cathedral in Harlem—has about 70 minutes of good drama. Unfortunately, those minutes are buried beneath two and a half hours of flab.
After a three-year disappearance, Jerome (a slightly hammy Marcel Davis) limps into the stone yard where his younger cousin Bobbie (the brooding G. To'mas Jones) is working on his first piece of marble. The future of the yard rests in that stone—if Bobbie carves it artfully enough, an unnamed benefactor will rain money on the yard, saving it from bankruptcy. Playwright Daniel W. Owens dutifully trots out all the standards of kitchen-sink family drama: old grudges, childhood reminiscences, familial competition, the tug of conflicting loyalties, life-and-death stakes (in this case, their addictions), plus a cranky white overseer (Ron Davids) to mediate between them. It all works. There's just too much of it.
Designer Tommer Peterson has turned the stage into a convincing stonecutters' studio, filled with dust, rocks, sketches, gargoyles, and tools, including a working pneumatic stonecutter. Owens, clearly, wants his audience to learn as much about carving as he does about his characters. The white overseer gives direct-address monologues between scenes about marble and limestone and how "stone never lies, only people do." Bobbie and Jerome is edifying, but only intermittently entertaining. BRENDAN KILEY
The Arabian Nights
Through Nov 8.
Mary Zimmerman's dreamy, drowsy adaptation of Arabian Nights excises the familiar—no Sinbad, no Aladdin, no Ali Baba, no thieves. The framework is the same: wily, beautiful Scheherazade (the appropriately arresting Allison Strickland) is wed to the wounded cuckold King Sharyar (Ashley Bagwell—sometimes powerful, sometimes overpowering) who every night "marries, loves, and kills a virgin." To save her own ass—and her younger sister's, next in line for holy matri-murder—Scheherazade distracts her bloodthirsty husband with 1,001 Arabian cliff-hangers. Storytelling is Scheherazade's gift, her weapon, and the only thing keeping her alive.
Scheherazade's stories, and stories-within-stories-within-stories, and so on, fold in on themselves and bleed into one another—some silly, some meditative—with the specters of gender, infidelity, and lust lurking around the sharp edges. A lonely, self-flagellating caliph wanders a dark riverbank. A merchant is duped into a madhouse by the promise of female beauty. Two citizens argue over the unknown contents of a bag ("A feather bed with the birds still attached!"). One unlucky dude can't escape the legacy of an epic fart ("My fart is a day on the calendar?").
Gussied up in that old familiar Middle Eastern style—every surface draped in scarves and padded with carpets (which seems, on a side note to all Westerners, like an uncomfortably reductive way to visualize an entire region)—Balagan Theatre's low, dark, subterranean space transforms handily into a caliph's palace, a bazaar, a desert: hot from breath and bodies and lights, stuffy with more than a whiff of neighboring armpits.
The 12-person cast—anchored by Ashley Bagwell's potency and Terri Weagant's deep, serene voice—indulges in a little overacting, in both the earnest moments and the goofy comedy. (What's the Arabian equivalent of hammy? Is it... goaty?) But Balagan productions have a consistent depth and life—they're just so likable—and after two and half hours with the cast in that intimate, intricate bedtime story, it felt like we'd been through something together. LINDY WEST