An epic 'Electra' takes the O'Reilly stage
By Alice T. Carter
Published: Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011
When Ted Pappas returned to Greece last summer he took "Electra" with him.
"I studied it in Greek under an olive tree on my property," says Pappas, who is directing the Pittsburgh Public Theater production of "Electra" that begins performances Thursday at the O'Reilly Theater, Downtown.
"Speaking the lines out loud on the hillside gave me a new understanding of the reach of the story and its language."
Greek drama and literature is part of Pappas' heritage. His family is Greek, and most summers, he returns there to reconnect with family members and spend time in the house he has there.
"I grew up being told these stories in many variations and attending Greek plays performed outdoors in a style similar to the original productions," he says. "All Greeks live in casual contact with their history. The idea that theater was a social, political and religious ritual is made clear when you are surrounded by reminders of an ancient civilization."
During his tenure as producing artistic director at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, Pappas had already had artistic and commercial success with productions of the classical Greek plays "Medea" and "Oedipus the King."
But those were not the only reasons he was eager to stage "Electra."
" 'Electra' is a monument and a touchstone for directors and actresses. It's always been on the short list of plays I wanted to explore and conquer," Pappas says. "It's epic and for all time, and like all great plays, it plays even better than it reads,"
Based on ancient Grecian myths, "Electra" is the story of a family torn apart by murders, betrayals and the thirst for revenge. It was originally written almost 2,500 years ago by Sophocles.
Still mourning the death of her father, King Agamemnon, Electra refuses to forgive her mother, Clytemnestra who killed Agamemnon. Clytemnestra argues that she was seeking justice for Agamemnon's decision to sacrifice their daughter, Iphigenia.
But Electra can't ignore that after her father's death her brother, Orestes, was exiled so her mother's lover and co-conspirator Aegisthus could become king.
Electra's sister, Chrysothemis, and the women of Mycenae, who form the play's chorus, urge Electra to let it go. But her brother's return adds a new dimension to the ongoing feud.
"It's very muscular, not as plot-driven as 'Oedipus.' This is a psychological drama and, in a sense, more tuned into a contemporary aesthetic," Pappas says. "At any given moment, you can side with any character and their arguments. ... It's told in epic style. I love its grandness but I'm moved by the people and their stories."
Which version of "Electra" to use was not a question Pappas had to linger over. He chose Irish playwright, translator and adaptor Frank McGuinness' treatment, which had played in London and Broadway with Zoe Wannamaker in the role of Electra.
"I love Frank's version. It is very close to the Greek. It's respectful of the epic tradition of Greek drama. But it feels very modern, believable and exciting to the ear," Pappas says. "The Irish are tuned into the Greeks. It may have to do with their ear for the musicality of language and their impulse to tell stories."
It's also a short evening in the theater, Pappas says: "This is a fast-paced play. All Greek plays are supersonic in their pacing and lean in their writing. ... There is so much in every line and every page. They pack a lot in. People are surprised by the time they spend in the theater, yet, it tells the story."
Born in 495 B.C. near Athens, Greece, Sophocles was a leading dramatist during what has come to be known as the Athenian Golden Age. Although he wrote more than 100 plays, only seven have survived intact: "Electra," "Oedipus the King," "Antigone," "Oedipus at Colonus," "Ajax," "The Women of Trachis" and "Philoctetes." He was reportedly more than 90 years old when he died around 406 BC.
About Frank McGuinness
Pittsburgh Public Theater audiences might remember McGuinness, who is from Ireland, as the playwright for "The Bird Sanctuary," which had its American premiere at Pittsburgh Public Theater with Hayley Mills in 2005.
He received a 2005 Tony Award nomination as the playwright for "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me" and his versions of Ibsen's' plays, "A Doll's House" and "Hedda Gabler," performed on Broadway.
His most recent play, "Great Garbo Came to Donegal," was staged last year in London.
He is a professor of creative writing at University College Dublin's School of English, Drama and Film.
About Ted Pappas
This is Pappas' 12th season as producing artistic director of Pittsburgh Public Theater and his 19th year of close association with the company as a director.
Among the productions he has directed for the Public are Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Kaufman & Ferber's "The Royal Family," Mary Zimmerman's "Metamorphoses" and the world premiere of Zeller & Collier's "The Chief."
"Electra" marks the third play by an ancient Greek playwright that Pappas has directed and produced at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Previous productions are "Oedipus the King" in 2006 and "Medea" in 2001.
In fiction and in real life, not all daughters are as submissive and sweet as Snow White or Cinderella. Some, like Electra, are on a one-woman crusade for their version of revenge and justice. Others are self-absorbed, headstrong, selfish or hard to live with for a variety of reasons.
Here's come other classic fictional daughters who were willful, selfish or otherwise hard to live with.
• Goneril and Regan, "King Lear," Shakespeare's play -- It's not enough that King Lear's two daughters, Goneril and Regan, feign love to convince him to divide his kingdom between them and allow their sister Cordelia to be banished. As soon as the deed is done, the two cold-hearted, ungrateful daughters begin stripping their father of his entourage, his pride and, ultimately, a place to live.
• Sarah Jane Johnson, "Imitation of Life" 1959 movie -- It's 1959 and daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), a light-skinned African American, prefers to deny her race and her heritage and identify herself as white, while distressing and humiliating her mother Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore).
• Veda Pierce, "Mildred Pierce," 1945 movie -- Desperate to earn her daughter's affection, single mother Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) works to supply her selfish, self-absorbed daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) with an upscale lifestyle. But all Mildred earns is scorn from Veda who takes the goodies but sneers at and plots against her working-class mother.
• Rhoda Penmark, "The Bad Seed," 1956 movie -- Obedient, neat and just about perfect on the outside, Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack) is terrifyingly evil. When she loses a spelling bee, she murders the boy who won, then, embarks on a rampage of terror and killing to cover up her crime.
• Regan MacNeil, "The Exorcist," 1973 film -- When the formerly sweet and sunny 12-year-old Regan (Linda Blair) starts spouting profanity and becomes frighteningly violent, her mother -- a divorced actress -- becomes concerned. Turns out she's possessed by a devil and exorcising him/her/it becomes an epic battle.
• Veruca Salt, "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," 1971 film -- Spoiled, overindulged and demanding Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole) has the entire staff of her dad's plant unwrapping candy bars to find her the Golden Ticket, and she wants it now!
• Paris Hilton: Sure, she loves dogs. But the socialite heiress' repeated arrests, jail-time, sex tape and self-indulgent reality shows starring herself leave you wondering what her family would say in a Christmas newsletter.
• Casey Anthony: Even after she was acquitted of murder in the death of her 2-year-old daughter Caylee, Anthony continues bringing stress and turmoil to her parents who cannot agree on what happened to their granddaughter.
• Lizzie Borden: Historians have been arguing the guilt or innocence of this Sunday school teacher turned media darling since her father and stepmother were victims of gruesome hatchet murders in 1892. Whether she did it or not, one thing is almost certain -- it's not the how you want people to remember your family.
• Katy Perry: The outspoken, often-outrageous pop star has caused her religiously conservative mom, Mary Perry Hudson, a lot of anguish. Mom might be seeking payback. Earlier this year, she reportedly was seeking a publisher for a tell-all book about her daughter.
• Patty Hearst: Whether she was a wrongly convicted, brain-washed kidnap victim or a rich girl willingly turned urban guerrilla, this young woman surely caused her parents sleepless nights.
• Patty Davis: Being president of the United States doesn't give you immunity from difficult daughters. Davis' widely publicized liberal views and her conflicts with her parents almost certainly distressed President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan
Produced by: Pittsburgh Public Theater
When: Thursday through Oct. 30 at 8 p.m. most Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Oct. 15, 22 and 29 and 2 and 7 p.m. most Sundays
Admission: $28.75-$60.75; $15.75 for those age 26 and younger with valid ID
Where: O'Reilly Theater, Downtown
Details: 412-316-1600 or www.ppt.org
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