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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Prophecies, matricide and rock ‘n’ roll: UNCW’s ‘Electra’ amps up Greek tragedy

Members of the chorus surround Electra in her grief during UNCW’s production of “Electra.” (PCD/Brenna Flanagan).

WILMINGTON — There is a striking moment in UNCW’s production of “Electra”: the chorus surrounds the play’s distressed title character as she grieves the murder of her father. 

The women, dressed in black, red paint smeared around their eyes, take on Electra’s agony as their own. Their collective wails match Electra’s, moving in sync with each breath she drags, as she crouches, clutching her heart. 

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The staging of the play will be familiar to anyone who has seen the 2019 film “Midsommar.” The story features a group of women — part of a Swedish cult rather than a Greek chorus — who become one with a sobbing interloper. Like “Electra,” the story ends with the scorned woman triumphant, revenge executed.

The parallel between the two stories, separated by more than 2,000 years, highlights the thread connecting modern generations with their forebears. 

The play begins with Electra’s brother Orestes (Zach Harris) hatching a plan to return home and avenge the death of their father, slain at the hands of their mother, Clytemnestra (Allison Garrett). Orestes was sent away from their dangerous family years ago, leaving Electra, (Lilly Ferguson) to be made a servant by her mother and her mother’s lover, Aegisthus (Khori Talley). Electra plots her own vengeance and attempts to enlist the help of her loyalist sister, Chrysothemis (Kate White), but gets nowhere until she reunites with Orestes.

The UNCW Department of Theatre’s production, which will open for two weekends on Thursday, preserves the same ideas Sophocles laid down long ago: who gets to define justice, duty to one’s family, the shifting nature of truth. Yet, the play conveys them through an immersive experience. 

Zach Harris as Orestes in UNCW’s production of “Electra.” (PCD/Brenna Flanagan).

For director Christopher Marino, it started with choosing the right adaptation. 

“I was really looking for writers that have a poetic sensibility,” Marino said. “What you find is a lot of these translations were done at the turn of the century, so they kind of feel biblical.”

He found the Kenneth Mcleish translation made famous by the 1988 Royal Shakespeare Company production. 

“[This translation] felt very modern,” he added.

Even with more relatable language, the dialogue of “Electra” drives the action — and there are long stretches of it. That’s where the technical elements come in. 

Marino has incorporated live music as a centerpiece of the show; the play begins with an ominous musical number sung by the chorus. Musicians Elliot Stanford and Matt Dauphin — comprising half the membership of local punk band Ridgewood — play guitar and bass continuously through the play’s runtime. Their riffs follow the emotional pull of each scene, building into blasts of direful rock in the show’s pivotal moments. 

The story is also visually buoyed by projections and dynamic lighting designs by Rachel Levy. Characters frequently interact with Marino’s carefully crafted set, also designed by Rand Enlow and Delaney Golden. It consists of a Greek temple with sand pits and pools of water, to help demonstrate rituals to the gods and character’s relationships to the elements. 

Chorus members Ashley Jackson and Erica Betts; Kate White as Clytemnestra and Lilly Ferguson as Electra in UNCW’s “Electra.” (PCD/Brenna Flanagan).

While serving a visual purpose, the technical elements assist in establishing the sensations felt by the characters throughout the entire theater. 

“This play, it’s constructed of energy,” Marino said. “We’re talking about …the beginnings of our understanding of theater. Energy and elements and things like that were much more a part of their everyday lives.”

The energy component was a challenge for members of the chorus, who almost always speak in unison and move in coordination with each other. 

“It’s very interesting to feel what other people are feeling — if someone’s having a bad day, or if someone’s having a great day, like you can kind of feel that in the energy and it changes the dynamic a lot,” chorus member Olivia Kessinger said. “But no matter what, we’re still having to work together as a team in order to make the show what it is.” 

The group also collaborated with Melissa Cross, a vocal coach specializing in rock and metal technique. Marino’s aim was to capture the emotional response during the play’s most violent moments. Keeping in the tradition of ancient Greek performances, the show’s murders are portrayed offstage. 

“[We’re] letting the audience see our responses instead of showing the audience ‘this is the thing, now just react to it,’” chorus member Erica Betts said. “So it’s a lot more of a sensory experience with the intense nature of it. It’s less of an action movie, more of a well-written novel.”

Lilly Ferguson as Electra. (PCD/Brenna Flanagan).

Kessinger described the chorus as “electrodes” extending out from Electra, the center of the show’s emotional abyss. 

“She is a very interesting character, very daunting, and it scared me a good bit,” Ferguson said. “I was very happy to be able to get the role, but I was quite horrified like, ‘Oh, this is a big undertaking.’”

According to Ferguson, working with the chorus has made portraying Electra in her most painful moments less intimidating and easier to approach. 

“Thanks to them, their skills and their input and energy, makes it so I don’t have to conjure up this deep, just like sorrow,” she said. 

Garrett, who plays Clytemnestra, said portraying intense emotions, as well as contextualizing them for the audience, remains of utmost importance — especially since the story begins after the murder of Electra’s father.

 [A]lso we’re not showing you why you’re just gonna have to try and follow along.” Garrett said. 

Electra (Lilly Ferguson) pleads with her mother Clytemnestra (Allison Garrett) in “Electra.” (PCD/Brenna Flanagan).

She said reading the other plays on Electra helped with portraying Clytemnestra, the antagonist to Electra’s story. Sophocles’ contemporary playwrights, Aeschylus and Euripedes, each had his own take on Electra’s tale, but both issued judgment on Orestes and Electra for their vengeful acts. 

Sophocles avoids shaming his characters, and in turn, the exact meaning or lesson cannot be derived from “Electra.” While rare for the classical playwrights, Marino said that aspect translates well to modern interpretations. 

“You’re kind of hard-pressed to look at anybody in the play and go, ‘They’re the villain,’” Marino said. “Everybody has justifications for their behavior. And maybe that’s the modern takeaway, right? That everybody thinks they’re right. And everybody is right. But everybody is also wrong.” 

He added an ultra-modern take is “Electra” as a representation of generational trauma, whereas Orestes and Electra can be seen as breaking the cycle. 

While new generations will always find new ways to frame them, the characters of “Electra” aren’t that different from everyone today, the cast maintained. 

“Emotions haven’t really changed that much, so there’s not really much to adapt to the new audience, except for giving them the sensory experience to connect with it,” Betts said. “It’s all just the same story carried on because it’s a piece of the world.”
“Electra” will run Feb. 16-19 and Feb. 23-26 at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. on Sunday at UNCW’s Mainstage Theatre in the Cultural Arts Building. Tickets are $14.02 and can be purchased here.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at 

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