Tuesday, May 19, 2009

“Children of Light”: a new ancient tragedy

Greek tragedy has held up a model for dramatists from Shakespeare to Eugene O’Neill and beyond. Based on ancient mythology, worshipped as religion, the Greeks of 5th century B.C. Athens dramatized yarns about families famous for killing each other and committing incest. Arguably the most enduring tale, from Homer through Euripedes, relates how the great general Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia so he could go to Troy, rescue Helen and kill lots of Trojans.

But when he got home his angry wife and her lover killed him in his bath (at least in a popular version). His second daughter, Electra, and her twin brother, Orestes, got even but experienced quite a mess in the aftermath. Though Orestes brings to an end the family murders, playwrights, both ancient and modern, seem more interested in Electra’s more complex psychology.

So was Sigmund Freud, who coined the “Electra complex” to account for a woman’s pathological love for her father.

Modern playwrights tend to translate the plot into a contemporary story. Eugene O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra,” which hit Broadway in 1931, set the action during the Civil War. Two years ago the Sacramento Theatre Company staged Luis Alfaro’s version, “Electricidad,”which takes place in a Los Angeles Barrio.

But Rick Foster, playwright and dramaturg in residence for California Stage, does an about face: with “Children of Light” he recasts the play as an ancient Greek drama–but with modern overtones. He sees ancient Athens as “abysmally misogynistic, and terrified of female power.” Does he succeed with his moral update? The question will be up to audiences to decide.

One feature of Greek tragedy, and other forms of tragedy inspired by it, is that its effect comes from its inevitability. Its power comes from its very lack of suspense. So we take the liberty here of telling you what happens before you see it.

On a spare stage Janis Stevens (who also directs and plays Klytemnestra, Electra’s mother) designed a background wall suggesting an ancient Greek locale. We first meet a ditch digger (Eric Balwin in the first of two roles), who addresses us somewhat like a chorus but using very modern slang. Though married to Electra he’s so far beneath her socially that he spares her virginity, according her a private bedroom in his hovel.

He departs and Electra (Brittaleigha Baskerville) arrives, choking with rage and a heart full of vengeance for the murder of Agamemnon by Klytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Three Greek women–Daphne (Acacia Fisher), Achillea (Lauren Nardozzi) and Irene (Sara Sells)–are unable to calm her. Only her brother, Orestes (Jammy Bulaya), has the right to satisfy her and the gods who demand revenge.

But when he finally arrives she doesn’t recognize him, having grown up apart from him. He’s accompanied by Pylades (Eric Baldwin), a priest of Apollo. When Electra berates Apollo for failing to answer her prayers, Pylades tries to dismiss her until she convinces him that she’s a true, though disappointed, worshiper.

After Orestes dispatches Aegisthus, and drags his headless corpse onstage swathed in a bloody sheet, the focus turns on Klytemnestra. Is it right for Orestes to kill his own mother, even in revenge for his father’s death?

When Electra confronts her mother, Stevens’ winsome and complex Klytemnestra almost persuades Electra to side with her. First there’s a mother’s outrage that Agamemnon would kill his own daughter so that he’d have an easy crossing to Troy. He compounds her pain by returning with a mistress. In legend she’s Cassandra, a Trojan seer blessed with the ability to see into the future, but cursed so that no one will believe what she foresees.

But Klytemnestra’s sympathetic case does not relieve her of responsibility for the assassination of Agamemnon, and after much agonizing, and under pressure from Pylades, Orestes overcomes his reluctance to slay his own mother. And finally Electra kills Pylades, eliminating his bad influence on Orestes, who now becomes king, though a deeply disturbed king. Ultimately Electra becomes the power behind the throne.

We get compelling performances from Baskerville, Bulaya, Baldwin and Stevens. Fisher, Nardozzi and Sells, though less experienced, bring a naive warmth to their portrayal of the Greek women in the background.

“Children of Light” continues through June 14 at California Stage, 2509 R Street, Sacramento. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. General admission is $20, with students, seniors and SARTA members at $15. Groups of 6 or more are $12. Call (916) 451-5822. See also

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