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Masks, Madness And The Mannons: KCST’s Mourning Becomes Electra

I smell an Oedipus complex…

This Wednesday, Guest Writer Sophie Tobin attended the dress rehearsal of KCST’s Mourning Becomes Electra by Eugene O’Neill, based on the Ancient Greek Oresteia. Despite some successful design and directing elements, the show was dragged down by acting that didn’t live up to its difficult script.

The King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe’s production of Mourning Becomes Electra tells the tale of how loss, grief, and lies play into a family’s dynamic after the death of the family patriarch. Written by Eugene O’Neill, the play initially appeared as a part of a much larger cycle in 1931. Many cuts were made to the script, resulting in a concise, simple plot.

The ensemble kicks off the show, entering while eerily humming (which was bone-chillingly beautiful), then kneeling along the edge of the audience, facing upstage. The show jolts to life with General Ezra Mannon (Jason Bowen, CC ‘21) lying in bed, flailing around as two women scream and panic. He accuses his wife, Christine (Grace Hargis, BC ’20), of his murder. Their daughter, Lavinia (Rose Meriam, BC ’19), is the only person who knows of this, and she immediately makes it clear to her mother that justice will be served. And, lo and behold, it is. Lavinia proves to her extremely unstable brother, Orin (Gabriel Multedo, CC ’22), that their mother is having an affair and is guilty of their father’s murder. In a fit of rage, he kills Adam Brant (also Jason Bowen, CC ’21) (his mother’s lover). As a result, Christine commits suicide. The play comes to a close with Lavinia reflecting on how justice has, in fact, been served.

The ensemble, a masked group representing multiple memories and people, was really interesting but could have been utilized a lot more. There were some interesting moments of movement work corresponding with the dialogue, but this was used sparingly and felt a bit random, leaving something to be desired in terms of the ensemble. In terms of the overall cast, each actor was fine in their role, but I was extremely disappointed in the lack of diversity.

One particular moment that stood out to me was when two ensemble members acted out the dynamic between Christine and Lavinia as they recall their disdain for one another, and how they no longer recognize each other as mother and daughter. The juxtaposition between Grace Hargis (Christine) and Rose Meriam (Lavinia), was great; Hargis’s fragility and franticness to get away with the crime bounces off Meriam’s stoicity and firmness. The two play off of one another quite nicely.

I have to mention the dynamic between Orin and Christine. Gabriel Multedo and Grace Hargis take creepy to a whole new level when they establish their Oedipal relationship through the strangest combination of familial doting and flirtation. It absolutely made my skin crawl. They had some really strong moments alone together, but sometimes a thrown away line or falling inflection would break me out of the story, and the feeling would be momentarily lost. This happened quite a few times when Orin was having one of his mental breakdowns. When it comes to highly emotional scenes, a consistent sense of urgency is key.

I also have to take a moment to talk about the Shantyman (Mark Pierce, CC ‘20), who opened the second half with a drunken escapade, complete with ballad singing and harmonica playing. Shantyman: if you’re reading this, I love you.

Another fantastic feature of this show was how the sound and lighting (and sometimes even the ensemble) enhanced certain crucial moments, such as during one of Orin’s mental breakdowns. The lights slowly transitioned to green, and a really creepy noise slowly increased in volume, until he snapped back to reality. The ensemble, which had been melting in the background, also snapped back to attention in perfect synchronicity. My favorite part of this was the fact that I didn’t even notice the changes until they all jolted back to normal. I then realized that I had a general sense of nervousness, and the creepy lighting and sound was definitely the culprit. Another time the lighting took center stage (literally and metaphorically) was during Christine’s suicide. Her movements were so precise, yet so delicate. A lot of great work was put into these little moments, but instead of being consistently wowed by the correspondence of lighting, sound, and acting, I was instead wishing there were more moments like that throughout the play.

The costumes and set design were overall pretty simple and neutral. The utilization of the masks was interesting but inconsistent and unclear. They were used to symbolize general feelings, memories, death, or to differentiate between ensemble characters, which lead to a lot of confusion whenever a mask would appear.

Rose Meriam was up to the task.

The decision to cut the script into an extremely simple plot requires extreme emotional depth in the actors’ portrayal of the characters. Although some scenes and delivery of lines were quite raw and real, it overall felt as if the actors were not up to the emotional task that comes with pulling extreme depth out of a simple plot line. During more intense or quiet moments, some lines were unintelligible, further perpetuating my confusion. I had no strong attachments towards any of the characters and was only mildly interested in finding out what would happen to them.

The play resulted in exactly what the opening scene suggested would happen: revenge being sought. The end, lights out. It didn’t even hit me that the play was over until the actors began to take their bows. Because some of the more complicated plot points had been cut for the sake of timeliness, there wasn’t really any sort of turning point to me. It was a sequence of events, plain and simple. It felt like I had been taken down a road to nowhere.

All in all, I like the direction that the show was headed in. Some really cool concepts were utilized, but a lot of them fell flat or weren’t followed through on. The combination of a simple plot and insufficient acting left me with a feeling of incompletion and mild disappointment. In the future, KCST should focus more on diverse casting, the feasibility of the script and its dramaturgy, and consistency in technical elements.

Mourning Becomes Electra plays Thursday, Oct. 25 through Saturday at 8 PM in the Lerner Black Box. Show up early to get off the waitlist.

Photos via Tina Simpson

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  • All of the Columbia-Barnard Theatre Community says:

    @All of the Columbia-Barnard Theatre Community Sophie Tobin and the BWOG Editorial Board:

    I cannot begin to describe the magnitude of apology you owe to this show, its creative team, its producers, and its actors for this atrocity of a review. I am not affiliated with this show in any way–I’m just a member of the student theatre community here–but I am seething just reading the introduction.

    Do you know anything about theatre? It seems like you do, so are you just being wilfully obtuse? Do you know how a production works? Do you know what a DRESS REHEARSAL actually is? Do you know what the difference is between a REHEARSAL and a PERFORMANCE? A dress rehearsal is not meant to serve as a public performance. It is a final opportunity to ensure that all of the pieces of a production come together smoothly. A dress rehearsal is for the technical team, not for an audience.

    The AUDACITY it takes for you to A) REVIEW a show without seeing an ACTUAL PERFORMANCE of it and then B) center the focus of your review on the ACTING, which is never–NEVER–the same between technical rehearsal and actual PERFORMANCE is utterly mind-boggling. I cannot believe you, Ms. Tobin, or the BWOG editorial team approved this course of action. If you cannot make it to an actual performance of a show, don’t review it! At the very least, it undermines your own credibility. To be clear, I would not have the slightest problem with this review if it was based on an actual performance of this show.

    Imagine I evaluated all of your journalistic work based on your drafts instead of your published work. That is what you have done to all of the hard-working people involved in this production, and you owe them a massive apology.


    The Columbia-Barnard Student Theatre Community

    1. Riva Weinstein says:

      @Riva Weinstein Bwog was specifically invited to the dress rehearsal by the production team of Mourning Becomes Electra, so that the review could go up as soon as possible. Dress rehearsal is as much for the actors as it is for the production team. They are expected to act to the standard they would in a performance.

    2. more diverse theatre pls says:

      @more diverse theatre pls please do not speak on behalf of the entire student theatre community, thanks!!

      there are decades of precedent for writing reviews based on invited dress rehearsals, smh

    3. Ditto @more diverse theatre pls!!! says:

      @Ditto @more diverse theatre pls!!! The CAUCACITY it takes for you to A.) read a review that critiques a show for its acting and lack of diversity and blames that on the actors not performing full out because it wasn’t a show and then B) totally gloss over the legitimate critique that the show was lacking in diversity while you speak for “all of the Columbia-Barnard Theatre Community” is utterly mind boggling. To think that you can speak for the opinions of everyone in this community is wild, because most would not share your ridiculous beliefs and certainly you could not find a director anywhere who will say they expect less of their actors at the dress rehearsal–not a good director anyways. I appreciate that BWOG was willing to call this production out on not casting a diverse show, because many of us have felt incredibly excluded by groups within the student theatre community.

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