If you see one Electra in your life, it should be Marya Sea Kaminski's current Electra at the Seattle Shakespeare Company. Seattle Shakes has the reputation of being solidly middlebrow and middle-quality, but Kaminski's performance is otherworldly—the most harrowing, intense, and awful thing you have ever seen (and are ever likely to see) on its stage. It takes uncommon guts to engage with and endure it.
The setup: Electra's mother (Clytemnestra) killed Electra's father (Agamemnon) because he killed Electra's sister (Iphigenia) as a sacrifice to Artemis (Sophocles, Aeschylus, and the rest of the old Greeks disagree about the particulars of why), which leaves the other children (Electra, Orestes, and Chrysothemis) figuring out how to deal. Chrysothemis wants to keep her head down and survive. Orestes is making his way home to avenge the murder by killing Clytemnestra and her new husband. And Electra waits and waits, shaking and foaming with rage and grief.
Irish playwright Frank McGuinness's adaptation is all language and emotions: The physical action happens either before the play begins or within its concluding minutes. But, spoken through Kaminski's mouth, it will act on you physically, turn you inside out. Her grief is so pure, so harsh, it burns the ears and blisters the brain. "What limit is there to what torments me?" she asks, and we wish we knew—if only for our own sakes. By the end, you'll want to take her home and wrap her in a blanket.
Electra is the ur-Hamlet: the ultimate anxiety of influence, the existential war of children against mothers, the shame and rage and desire of a thing violently rejecting its origins and trying to become itself. More casual Electras are simply angry, but Kaminski's Electra is a full, primal philosophical problem. Her performance is painful and nauseating because she is telling us who we are—neither an actor nor an audience could hope for anything more.
Sadly, Kaminksi's performance (directed by Sheila Daniels) is not matched by the supporting cast. Darragh Kennan acquits himself with brooding dignity as Orestes, Susannah Millonzi gives the play some neurotic juice as sister Chrysothemis (their fight, midway through, is one of Electra's most searing moments), and John Bogar is properly brief and oafish as Aegisthus (Clytemnestra's doomed husband). But the play belongs to Kaminski. We belong to Kaminski. Until Electra closes, the city belongs to Kaminski.
Hunter Gatherers, a newish comedy by San Francisco playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, is a lighter look at the primal desire and violence burbling beneath the patina of civilization. "The Fab Four," two liberal, urbane (and mismatched) couples get together for their annual anniversary dinner and discover each other's inner beasts clawing toward the surface. It begins with Richard (a bearded, oafish id played by Patrick Allcorn) and Pam (a painfully meek do-gooder played by Montana von Fliss) slaughtering the main course in the living room of their apartment. Designed by Evan Ritter, the white—perhaps even eggshell white?—apartment is the kind of place you might find in the Mission district, tastefully renovated and striving for laurels from Dwell magazine. By the play's end, there's blood and semen on the floor, meat on the walls, and dead bodies splayed across the furniture.
Nachtrieb's couples are familiar caricatures: Richard and Pam are the caveman and his squeak-voiced helpmeet; Tom (Ricky Coates) and Wendy (Hannah Victoria Franklin) are the brainy nebbish and his frustrated, oversexed wife whose biological clock is roaring in her ears. "Richard angry," our caveman-host growls when Pam accidentally drops a pan of lamb. "There are some tigers who like the woods, and others who prefer cages, magic shows, and having their meat served in a bowl," snarls Wendy, spurning Tom's unease with parallel parking (he prefers a garage). Hunter Gatherers is all very light and loud, frequently funny, but never really sticks in the knife and twists. The eruption of violence that ends the play feels neither thrilling nor consequential—just a few more plot points bringing another satire of domestic unhappiness to a close.