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Marathon of Hate

Sophocles' "Electra," at Hartford Stage, examines the wages of revenge

Like Old Testament stories, ancient folklore, and fairy tales, Greek tragedies continue to grip our imaginations. Though the long-dead worlds they spring from are almost unrecognizable to our modern eyes, these tales are drawn from the deep wells of common human experience, and their themes and passions are just as relevant today as they were 2,500 years ago.

In Sophocles' "Electra," that motif is revenge.

Electra is the daughter of Agamemnon, leader of the Greek armies in the Trojan War. While he was away -- for ten long years -- his wife Clytemnestra took up with a neighboring king, Aegisthus, and when the weary hero returned from Troy, they promptly killed him. Electra was just a child then, but she's grown into a bitter young woman, still mourning her father, cursing her mother, and praying for her exiled brother, Orestes, to return and avenge the murder. Meanwhile, she mopes around the palace, giving everyone the evil eye, including her practical sister Chrysothemis, who keeps her head down and her mouth shut in order to have an easy life.

Electra's marathon of hate has made her a little crazy, and that's part of Jonathan Wilson's point in his production for Hartford Stage. While the play's main focus is on justice -- blood atonement for an unforgivable crime -- Wilson is more interested in the damage that longing for revenge can do to the person who's fixated on vengeance. Electra has no life but her mourning, no nourishment but her hunger for retribution, no human interactions but spiteful recriminations.

Despite the shift in emphasis, and a couple of unorthodox changes, this is no revisioning of the classic through a modern lens, like Wilson's ill-conceived "Oedipus" of two years ago2001. His "Electra" is at once more traditional and more successful. Linda Ross's costumes are rough-woven Greek-style tunics and flowing gowns (Electra seems to be wearing the same black dress she wore to her father's funeral, now worn to rags); Scott Bradley's set is a field of stones and cinders fronting the rusted iron walls of the royal palace. But within this timeless circle, topics from today's headlines echo: the clamor for executions by the families of murder victims; the vicious cycle of eye-for-an-eye responses to terrorism.

As if to underline the universal themes, Wilson's cast is multiracial and international. Chrysothemis is played by Cyprus native Agnes Tsangaridou, and Electra is the Yugoslavian-born film star Mirjana Jokovic. Two other roles are played by African-Americans.

Electra has only two postures -- rage and grief -- and that two-note dirge exasperates the people around her. It gets a little wearing on the audience, too. Jokovic is a wiry, fiery performer who brings a sustained intensity to Electra's desolation, but she flails and cries a little too monotonously. That seems to be part of the director's plan, though, to keep us from really identifying with the character so that we may see the harm she's doing to herself while she dreams of doing harm to others.

In contrast, the villainess of the piece, her mother Clytemnestra, comes off as almost more sympathetic than Electra. Carmen Roman shows us a deeply conflicted woman, covering her guilt with sarcastic humor and defending her deadly act as justified revenge. Agamemnon, after all, sacrificed his other daughter, Iphigenia, to ensure the Greek fleet fair sailing to Troy.

While this is a fairly straightforward staging, Wilson has tinkered a little with tradition. The standard Greek chorus has been reduced to one person; instead of a community of women lending moral support to Electra, she has a sympathetic surrogate mother. The other liberty is taken at the very end. In Greek tragedy, all violent acts occur offstage, but here, one of the two killings that cap the play turns into an onstage duel. Neither of these shifts seems a terrible violation, except perhaps to purists, but together they imply a conviction that some of the conventions of Greek drama are too antiquated for an audience raised on naturalism and gunfights.

No one but Electra makes more than a couple of appearances in the play, but Wilson's supporting cast acquit their cameo roles impressively. Most effective is Roman, as the morally tortured queen, but strong showings are also given by Sheila McCarthy as the matronly one-woman chorus; Raphael Nash Thompson as the haughty usuper Aegisthus; Steven Barker Turner as Orestes, who does indeed return to fulfill Electra's dream of vengeance; and Gustave Johnson as the old tutor who brings false news to camouflage Orestes' arrival.

In the end, the circle remains unbroken. Blood for blood, blow for blow. They say revenge is sweet, but at Hartford Stage it's bitter, hollow, and self-destructive.

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