For the last 10 years, Kevin Moriarty has been the resident chemist in the Arts District, where his latest concoction is an outdoor production of the Greek tragedy Electra. As the Dallas Theater Center’s artistic director, manipulating text and space are his bread and butter.
Moriarty comes by his curiosity honestly. At 21, he was a newly appointed music teacher at a small Minnesota high school and had a unique opportunity thrust into his hands: Medea, the school play. The Greek tragedy was the first play he had ever directed, and a pretty heavy one at that.
Together, he and his students made sense of, and produced, Medea. This experiment lasted in Moriarty’s mind. From the moment he had that first play in front of him he started asking a question that he still asks with each play he directs: “Why this play now?”
And so Moriarty has begun a new, multi-faceted experiment to bring an ancient Greek tragedy to a modern audience.
In the story, Electra, the long-suffering daughter of King Agamemnon, dreams of revenge. Her mother, Clytemnestra, murdered her father 10 years ago. But Clytemnestra had a good reason: Agamemnon had sacrificed another of their daughters.
The “why this play now?” part is easy for Moriarty to explain this time. Electra depicts a cycle of familial and domestic violence that Moriarty sees in our modern world. The story is both personal and political, he says, both complex and vital.
He draws parallels to modern-day Syria, asking the question: “If something wrong, something terribly wrong, was happening, would you speak up?”
He takes the thought one step further.
“What if something wrong happened and nothing changed? What if that’s just the way things are? And what if you did speak up, every day for 10 years, yelling until your throat bled, sleeping only until you could speak again. What if the cost of speaking up was never enjoying companionship?”
This is Electra’s plight. And Moriarty considers the story a hero’s journey of righting a grave injustice.
There are multiple versions of Electra’s tale. They all involve her brother, Orestes, who returns home to reclaim the usurped throne and encounters his sister who thought him dead. Orestes murders his mother at his sister’s insistence and the siblings present her corpse to their stepfather. He is killed offstage.
Euripides and Aeschylus both tell the story in different ways than Sophocles. Aeschylus divided the story into three parts, the Oresteia. And though his adaptation invokes all three playwrights, Moriarty likes Sophocles’ version best.
“Sophocles’ Electra is the most perfect text in all of playwriting,” he says. “It’s beautifully structured; there is a clear moral force and clarity to the story.”
Moriarty read all the plays, pored over literature about them and translated the adaptation himself, comparing Greek with English text side by side. The result, he says, is a very literal and faithful translation.
He also looked at Aeschylus and Euripides. He found Euripides’ a strikingly modern text with profound psychological insight; Aeschylus’ is a more full statement of ideas but lacking without the context of the complete Oresteia. Sophocles’, he says, is the perfect porridge.
And then the science experiment began. Moriarty was faced with the challenge of rendering the Greek chorus for a modern audience, which he’s dealt with in productions of Oedipus el Rey and Medea, by assigning the role of the chorus to specific characters.
“Athenians had a tradition of choral dance and song that went beyond drama,” Dr. Teresa M. Danze, assistant professor of classics at the University of Dallas, says. “This is not a part of the common American experience.”
Moriarty saw this production of Electra as an opportunity to play once again with the tradition of a Greek chorus. He decided to create the effect of one by giving the audience headsets, through which they’ll hear the voice of dead Agamemnon.
Danze supports Moriarty’s adjustment, because it makes sense given Electra’s obsessive devotion to her murdered father.
“In my work on it, I understand the chorus to be an alternate maternal voice for Electra, the maternal voice that’s missing, that both consoles but chides and tries to be measured — as many choruses do — but it is a less interesting chorus than others,” she says. “I can see how another read would be that she is too controlled by the paternal/patriarchal paradigm, thereby making her an enemy to the woman who bore her.”
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For the director, it’s also practical. “Translating the chorus is really, really hard,” he says.
Moriarty knows it’s all a big gamble. But the chance to try something new, both in terms of the chorus, and in terms of the performance space itself, was too good to pass up.
“For Medea, we had a small, oppressive space, the basement of the Kalita. For Electra it’s the outdoors,” he says. “I want Electra to call out to the gods, and when she does, I want the space above her to be infinite.”
See Electra through May 21 at Annette Strauss Square, 2403 Flora St. Tickets are $20 to $73 at attpac.org.