Electra:  An American Gothic

Writer David Skeele’s reimagining of Electra for Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania’s theatre students had all the makings of something worth seeing. A Greek tragedy which famously sees its title character take revenge on her parricidal, adulterous mother is transposed to the Appalachian Mountains. They’ve even hauled in a live band of folk musicians, banjos and all. What more could a sucker for Americana want?

The performers’ lukewarm sentiment leaves us with a gaping sense of apathy at the unfolding crisis. Somehow, we’re left as cold as the corpses that litter the stage.

At first, it seemed Skeele had done an admirable job of mirroring the plainsong of Greek drama in his characters’ lilting Southern speech. In the play’s opening scene, Cora, a thinly veiled image of Cassandra portrayed by Rachel Lambert, describes ‘the streams muttering their gossip in the sun’. Elsewhere, the transformation of old into new is more strained, in particular the awkwardly-named “Atreus Country” and “Parnassus Bluff.” This juxtaposition of names seemed unnecessary.

Performances are decidedly mixed. At the upper end is Williams’ firebreathing Reverend, along with Cindy Brennan’s doe-eyed, viper-tongued Clytemnestra. The latter’s silent self-loathing sang in her monosyllabic response to her daughter calling her a ‘stupid woman’: ‘Yes’. However, many performances are unconvincing, a serious flaw in a narrative whose credibility is already strained (who would want to kill their own mother? As the Chorus say in Fagles’ translation of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, ‘mortals’ must be ‘overcome, / insane to murder kin’). Woefully little of this matricidal insanity fires Joe Karl, whose Orestes seems limp compared to Williams’ Reverend. Somewhat stronger is Carina Iannarelli as Electra, who seems to have internalised the desperation besetting the House of Atreus.

Director Gordon Phetteplace perhaps wanted to follow Arthur Miller in bringing tragedy to Middle America. However, he’s misunderstood the brief: rather than elevating the everyday, as Miller intended, Phetteplace trivialises the tragedy. The performers’ lukewarm sentiment leaves us with a gaping sense of apathy at the unfolding crisis. Somehow, we’re left as cold as the corpses that litter the stage.

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

This Greek tragedy is thrust into a landscape of deep-seated rivalry and war amidst the hillfolk of the Appalachian Mountains. Blinded by hatred and driven by her need for vengeance, the spirited Electra reveals how destructive one can be when pride is the only thing they have left. This fast paced 60 minute tragedy, written by David Skeele, directed by Gordon Phetteplace, and underscored by live Americana folk music, serves as a solemn reminder about the evils of revenge and the power of a vow.