Tonight, the UCLA Department of Theater will be putting a modern edge on classical Greek drama.
Euripides’ tragedy “Elektra,” directed by Master of Fine Arts Directing Candidate Monica Payne and based on the translation by Kenneth McLeish, will run until this Saturday at the Little Theater in Macgowan Hall.
For those unfamiliar with Greek mythology, the play takes place many years after the assassination of King Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra.
Their daughter Elektra and their son Orestes are cast into exile; Elektra is forced to marry a farmer and Orestes is banished from the kingdom. This version of the story focuses on Elektra, her intense grief for her father, and the extremes she goes to for revenge.
“Its definitely not the happiest of plays,” said second-year theater student Jill Renner. “The circumstances of the show are very extreme, and you might think that they are so much so that you can’t relate to it, but I think there are a lot of things the audience can sympathize with, like the loss of a loved one.”
Audiences should also relate to Payne’s interpretation of the play, which re-imagines the visual and musical elements while remaining loyal to the script.
For example, the play takes design inspiration from the ’30s, giving it an atmosphere akin to that of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Initially, Payne said, she thought of the era for its music.
“I was really connected to the idea of using appellation style music, and immediately heard fiddle and mandolin, those kinds of sounds,” Payne said. “But also, I thought of those old black and white photographs of the Depression and people living in little, pasted-together tin shacks, it all feels very much in the American consciousness ... all the discussion of the economy now and connecting that to the Great Depression made it feel relevant to me too, as a way of modernizing it without bringing it all the way to 2010.”
“Elektra” uses several music pieces to support a chorus, a common feature of classical Greek theater. In the show, the chorus is comprised of a group of 12 women who provide an objective perspective on the tragedy as Elektra’s neighboring farm wives.
Along with observing the play’s events, the chorus also performs several songs and dance numbers, all set to Depression-era music. Renner, the chorus leader, said she felt that the music was very appropriate for the show’s content.
“Because (Elektra) is married to a farmer in the country, the folk music sets a really nice tone for the show,” Renner said, “We have that sense of mourning and loss and there’s something about even happy folk songs or songs from the Depression that has a kind of bittersweet, sad quality to it.”
To Payne, the all-female choir contributed to her attachment to the play, as well as the many strong female characters. Out of the 26 cast members, 18 are women, and Payne said she hoped viewers could appreciate the feminine themes in a modern context.
“In the original, Elektra is supposed to be this sort of marginal figure,” Payne said. “I responded to her incredible strength. Even though it’s misguided in a lot of ways, it’s still a portrayal of somebody who wants something and goes after it.”
Graduate student Kaitlyn E. Pietras, scenic designer for the show, said that the ’30s time period also seemed to emphasize the play’s emotional themes.
“My set really wanted to emphasize the mental state Elektra’s in by having a world inspired by the ’30s but not specifically set in the ’30s, creating a distressed psychological, abstract sort of space,” Pietras said.
Pietras said that the play still feels relevant, all these millenia later.
“I feel that so many of the themes are universal,” Pietras said. “These sort of powerful emotions still happen today, whether or not you go to the extreme of wanting to kill someone, people hurt each other and that’s just a part of life.”
Only a little over an hour, the play is short, furious and intense.
“There is no fourth wall, the actors are directly looking out and speaking to the audience, so how the audience responds is a huge part of the picture,” said Payne. “I’m interested in how much deeper it can get, physically and emotionally, once the audience comes in and plays their part.”