Mommie deadest

What, the cynical historian might ask, can a play written in 413 B.C. say about the 1997 us? Whatever it tells us--and if you pay close attention to the text, placarded with disciplined but unaffected readings in the Gryphon Players' new mounting of Euripides' Electra, you'll find much that's familiar--you can be sure it wouldn't be nearly as intimate without the work of Sigmund Freud.

The 20th century isn't ending nearly as well as it began for one of the West's most influential thinkers. The hapless Viennese is rumored to have written some fairly nasty things about women, gays, and people with less melanin in their skin than him, which is why the left hates him; his psychological paradigms took all the mystical force out of sin, which explains the animosity of religious right thinkers.

In point of fact, Siggie thought everyone of all colors, both genders, and any sexual predilection was the sum of his or her neuroses--in his view, the psychic life of the individual was a journey without end, a pursuit of balance never to be achieved. And as far as pinning the secular humanist badge on him, Freud plundered rich religious and secular texts to imbue the developmental processes of the human brain with a thrilling mythic intensity. Call him thief, but never misanthrope--Freud had a compassionate genius, however misguided it sometimes was, for locating truths about human nature in classical art and presenting them as if they were his own.

I contend that a familiarity with Freud's concept of the Electra complex only enriches, makes more immediate the family saga of violence and regret that unfolds in Euripides' version of the ancient saga, translated here by Emily Townsend Vermeule. As directed by Keith Oncale, who helmed New Theatre Company's last schizophrenic production, Faith Healer, Electra is an anatomy lesson in the bare bones of classical tragedy. Considering the sacrilege of updates and reimaginings that has been foisted on the great works of the theater during the last twenty years, this historical but uncluttered staging is a breezy relief--if such a thing can be said about the bloody tale of a brother and sister who conspire to kill their mother.

When I bash so-called directors' theater versions of classic works, it's not out of some misguided campaign to preserve the integrity of theatrical tradition. Purism is the last defense of the unimaginative. I say to directors and actors--if a Shakespearean passage offends thee, pluck it out. But baubles and bangles adorning a time-tested morality play only obscures the vision that the playwright has wrought. The thing that makes theater sacred is its limitations--there will always be drawbacks and all manner of interruptions that can occur when time and space have defined the terms of an aesthetic experience.

To describe it another way--putting lipstick on a pig just diminishes the pig's natural beauty. I like to think of theater as an underrespected and underestimated cloven-hoofed animal who, although not allowed in the better homes, is relied upon to unearth little bits of buried humanity that the rest of us won't go digging for. When there are no elaborate sets or props, minimal lighting and sound effects, and elemental touches like masks, audiences are confronted by the power of the word itself--and the strength or weakness of their own imaginations. The great Greek tragedies were so primal in their subject matter, they tend to render strenuous efforts at creating atmosphere at best redundant, at worst ridiculous.

Luckily, the mission statement of Gryphon Players includes "the production of professional, intercultural, and classical theatre of excellence and relevance to the community." That last sentence sounds like a clause that will permit some visiting director to give Oedipus the last name "Menendez," but for the most part the Players err on the side of caution. Keith Oncale has choreographed the six actresses who constitute the cast into tight swirls and circlets inside circles of movement. Actresses are forever rolling across the stage like carpet, marching clockwise or counter- to confront another castmember. The result is an Electra with a tart, coherent sweep to it.

The title character is played with barely restrained patrician contempt by Celise Moreau, and I must say she parlays the bitchy debutante thing into one of the myth's more telling psychological insights--that Electra, daughter of the murdered military legend Agamemnon, hates her mother Clytemnestra because she, Electra, has lived in poverty ever since Agamemnon's killing. Electra cites revenging her father's name to justify her murderous rage, but Euripides knows why Electra will eventually regret her mother's killing, as the oracles predict at the play's close--because it is an act of pride, not revenge. Once again, the Greeks weren't just originators of valuable concepts like democracy and frottage; they also knew the tendency human beings have had and always will have to blame their problems on bad parenting.

Electra's brother Orestes (Melanie Stroh) is a tougher nut to crack, partly because Stroh gives a stately if bland performance, but also because, as written, Orestes is far less complex than Electra. The element of self-deception in Electra's constant invocations of her father provides a juicy kernel around which an actress may wrap a performance, but manly Orestes, who sneaks back into Argos with murder on his mind after years of banishment, aligns himself straightforwardly with concepts of honor. And yet, he will also rue the decision to kill his mother and the man who took his father's place--by living the lonely, itinerant life that began after Agamemnon's murder.

Director Keith Oncale makes nice use of choruses, especially when four women play one character, like the old man who recognizes Orestes or Electra's cuckolded husband. This all-female cast gives Euripides' script a certain feminist oomph, not in the sense of consciousness-raising or empowerment, but as a covenly expression of natural female force. These actresses united behind a mask on a stick lend majesty to the old man, and a sense of fragmentation to the queenly Clytemnestra.

Sounding like Camille Paglia for more than one sentence ought to be punishable by court-ordered community service, so I'll stop here but say the best feminist interpretation of a classic is the one that was there all along, however enmeshed in the misogyny of its own era. Medea may have killed her children just to spite her husband, but there's still victory in a woman who can hate without being condescended to by the author. Gryphon Players pare away the frou-frou "poetry" of classical Greece, daring us to feel the fury of a woman scorned.

Electra runs through April 26. Call 526-1158.

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Jimmy Fowler