Tracey Jack, Sandra Miller, and Zainab Jah
in (The Blood) Electra
(© Troy Hourie)
Tracey Jack, Sandra Miller, and Zainab Jah
in (The Blood) Electra
(© Troy Hourie)
The ancient Greek tragedies have become a contemporary theatrical form of the Rorschach Test. Those who adapt these plays seize upon the bloody high drama of the pieces and then try to make them relate to us. More often than not, these attempts at contemporizing the very first plays of western culture feel forced and pretentious.

The Classical Theatre of Harlem has been consistently -- and imaginatively -- re-imagining the classics; their new production, (The Blood) Electra takes enormous liberties with not just Sophocles' language but also the length of the work. The play is cut down to a tight and sometimes terrifying 60 minutes. In the process, adapter/director Alfred Preisser has created a play that's not only over in no time, but one that's of our time and for our time.

Electra (Zanibah Jah) has made herself just about crazy over the death of her father and the fate of her missing brother, Orestes (Samuel Ray Gates). However, her mom, Clytemnestra (Petronia Paley), is adapting very well having taken up with a young soldier while she rules the roost. Meanwhile, mommy dearest taunts her daughter, giving her every chance to kill her if she has the guts. She doesn't -- because she has been waiting for Orestes to come back from the war to do the deed. Too bad her mother tells her that her brother is dead.

Except he isn't. It's just another one of her lies. When Orestes finally shows up, mom tries to seduce her son. Things are going well on that front, until mom's lover shows up in his underwear, asking her where she's been. This is where you start to get plenty of gunfire and a major league stabbing. As you might have guessed, a lot happens quickly in this rendition of the story, most of which is pretty exciting.

We daresay Sophocles wouldn't understand most of the newly written references, idiomatic expressions, and slang; but you sure will. Happily, you will laugh with the language, not at it. And when you're not laughing, you'll be transfixed by both the economy of the words and the powerful performances of the lead actors.

In particular, you will not be able to take your eyes off of Jah, who gives a mercurial star turn as Electra. She's supported in grand style by Paley as the stylish Clytemnestra (her costumes are by Kimberly Glennon) and the sunny and funny Trisha Jeffrey as Chrysothemis. Gates has the soldierly presence of Orestes, but lacks the inner fire that must burn through despite seeming to be a broken man. There is also, naturally, a Greek Chorus of four women who effectively weave in and out of the tale.

If this rendition of Electra has one failing, it is that by cutting the play so tight some of the motivations of the characters aren't fully fleshed out. We don't always know why they are doing what they do. For instance, when Orestes comes home he tells his sister that he's finished with killing. Yet, when the time comes, almost without provocation, he kills again.

Quibbles aside, this whirlwind production is another yet outstanding adaptation of Greek theater and should be another reason for serious theatergoers to head uptown.