Yesterday evening, Riva Weinstein and Betsy Ladyzhets (Arts Editor and EIC, respectively) braved the precipitation and the ridiculously large puddles to attend the 9 pm showing of Electra, KCST and Columbia HeForShe’s production of the Greek tragedy in honor of International Women’s Day. The performance was incredibly accomplished for its short time frame (about 35 minutes) and small space (a stage set up in the Lerner Party Space).
Last night, the King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe (KCST) and Columbia HeForShe put on three consecutive performances of Electra, Anne Carson’s translation of Sophocles’ tragedy. This is the second time the two organizations have collaborated for such a performance, following last year’s production of Antigone. Columbia’s chapter of HeForShe works to “foster gender equality, encourage positive attitudes towards women, and create an activist space on campus,” from their blurb in the show’s program. Before the show began, president Celine Laruelle explained that HeForShe’s collaboration with KCST is meant to use the arts to “convey a powerful story of resistance,” and emphasized HeForShe’s commitment to intersectional, anti-racist feminism.
Set in the aftermath of the Trojan War, Electra tells the story of Electra (India Beer, BC ‘21) and Orestes (Daniel Kvoras, GS ‘19), two children of Agamemnon, a major player on the Greek side of the war. The siblings have been left in a ruptured family after their mother, Klytaimestra (Grace Henning, BC ‘20), murdered their father with her lover Agisthos (Jared Rush, CC ‘21). Years later, Orestes (now a grown man) sends a false story of his death to Klytaimestra and Agisthos, and Electra falls into deep mourning. When Orestes arrives and sees her grief, he reveals himself to her. She helps him kill first Klytaimestra, then Agisthos. The story appears to be a family tragedy, but it is full of the language of resistance, which KCST/HeForShe’s production emphasized through stage direction and lighting choices.
The most notable character was, without a doubt, Electra herself. Beer started a bit stiff, but her performance became more compelling quickly as the emotion in the play increased. We held our breaths as she shouted at the other characters and the audience that “Vengeance is coming.” She was particularly mesmerizing when begging her sister Chrysothemis (Oona Mackinnon-Hoban, BC ‘21) for help in avenging their father, and cradling an urn supposed to contain her brother’s ashes.
Grace Henning, a talented but often underused actor in KCST shows, shone in her role as the murderous Klytaimestra. She appears onstage for the first time only to dig her fingers into Electra’s wounds, unrepentant for her crime or her daughter’s grief. “There is something grotesque in having my own evil save my life,” she drawls, upon hearing the news of Orestes’ death. Her tension with Electra produced some of the most breathtaking scenes of the play: “I am the shape you made me,” Electra hisses at her mother. “Filth teaches filth.”
Directorially speaking, we felt that the Chorus was underused in comparison to previous KCST tragedies such as Antigone and Medea. AJ McDougall’s shifting between character, narrator, and voice of the protagonists’ thoughts was more confusing than elegant. Nonetheless, the statuesque McDougall played the role with appropriately ominous intensity. Also notable was Oona Mackinnon-Hoban, whose refusal to help her sister get revenge infuriates Electra, the Chorus, and the audience.
This play was staged in a relatively small space, between the staircase leading down into the party space and the far wall, but its director (Karinya Ghiara, CC ‘19) utilized this space expertly, particularly through emphasis on distance and touch. Moments of anger and strife were underscored with characters physically placed at odds from each other, such as when Electra plasters herself against the side of the staircase to mourn her brother, or when she, Chrysothemis, and the chorus all stood in a line with their backs to each other as they failed to come to a consensus on how to act. This distance was most noticeable when juxtaposed with a moment of touch: Electra and Orestes embracing as she realizes his identity.
Elizabeth Schweitzer’s (BC ‘18) lighting, which did not change throughout the short play, was a visually stunning tableau of purples, blues, reds and yellows emanating from opposite areas of the stage. Depending on where the actors stood, they could be cast in the deep blues of grief or the vivid red of impending violence. Throughout the play, the most politically significant lines from the script – plus the recurring lament, Oimoi Talaina, meaning “woe is me” – were projected on the opposite wall to intriguing effect. (At least, until the projector suffered a malfunction a few scenes in and was turned off.) Perry Levitch (BC ‘20) kept up a tradition of excellent KCST costume design with the long, draping, classically timeless dresses and intricate jewelry on the female characters. The contrast between the bare feet of the female characters and the shoes of the male characters seemed to underscore the women’s vulnerability, and the inherent power dynamic at play.
At the end of the play, following Klytaimestra and Agisthos’ death, Electra ascends the high metal staircase of the Lerner Party Space, her hands red with her mother’s blood, and gives the audience one last, accusing look before making her exit. She seems to be challenging us to condemn her – a person who “no one else has ever pitied,” who was left alone in the depths of her grief with no recourse but vengeance.
After this ending, audience members were encouraged to wander to the back of the Party Space, where some tables were set up with HeForShe informative materials, and others were set up with markers and large sheets of craft paper. Questions such as “Which women inspire you?” and “What change do you want to see by 2020?” encouraged the audience to connect the theme of resistance to their own lives. These exhibits were a productive activity (as seen by responses both thoughtful and humorous written on the papers), but less interactive than those associated with Antigone last year, in which audience members moved to different stations, drew, and made bracelets while the play was taking place, and seemed tangentially related to Electra itself.
It may have been overzealous for HeForShe to present this Greek tragedy as a story of political resistance, or as intersectionally feminist. Nonetheless, Electra was a powerful story of grief, filial debt, and fortitude – as well as a spine-chilling warning of what women are capable of when they can take no more.
Photos via Betsy Ladyzhets