By Bob Shuman

The director David Herskovits has brought Mourning Becomes Electra to the Abrons Arts Center, which runs until May 20 (and has only 17 performances).  In this titanic, five-hour play–which includes a tasty vegan puffed tofu and sticky rice meal, eaten during a break for dinner–he’s interested in a deep scan of O’Neill’s moods and psyche.   Calculating blood pressure, heartbeat, and breathing, he and his excellent cast–Herskovits is the founder and  artistic director of Target Margin Theater–negotiate O’Neill’s Civil War history, as well as the ancient Greek underpinnings—the play is based on the Oresteia—and uses melodramatic techniques the dramatist gleaned from his matinee-idol-actor father.  Shakespeare, Strindberg, Ibsen, Melville, and Freud are also present—why shouldn’t O’Neill want us to be haunted, too (in fact, this is how he has entitled his last play in the trilogy)?

Herskovits’s version is “quieter and more personal” than the one that might be expected or the one that was originally produced on Broadway in 1931.  O’Neill liked doing a “big thing,” and, make no mistake about it, Mourning Becomes Electra is a major undertaking–consider all the lines to memorize, the focus and stamina needed, the antebellum set (Lenore Doxsee), the naked light (Doxsee and Sarah Lurie), the mosaic-like sound (Herskovits), tech cues, costume changes, and the glamorous wig fitting for Stephanie Weeks.  Families overwhelm us, the dramatist is saying–and so can plays about them. From “moment to moment,” Herskovits explains, “we slide between different modes of expression.  We can be big and more stylized; we can be small and intimate.”  The ensemble retains the language and the sequence of the original, but Herskovits—and his cast of six (in the ‘30s there were 18 performers) want to take us further, into the “different textures of the writing.”  Sudden, intimate voice amplification shows technological innovation; the acting includes presentational, realistic, and highly stylized work; performers know physical theatre and Mamet-technique, as well as Kabuki, Brechtian, and Bergman methods—then, they might sit with the audience or begin talking with their hands.  Tides of music are incorporated, from classical to jazz, Celtic to catchy Bacharach-like pop, and ambient sounds—“Shenendoah,” the shanty heard throughout the work is O’Neill’s contribution.

Closer and closer, the audience is continually directed to the stage, starting faraway in the lobby of the theatre and ending on the boards themselves—relentlessly, they seem to be asked to take part in the obsessions being portrayed. Once there, in the rough-hewn, black cubicle–amid ropes, wires, and lights–we realize the extent we have been projecting, enlarging, imagining, imbuing.  “The primary version hovers over us, like the ghost of a story we all shared years ago,” the director has said.  Whether ghosts are to be believed—especially O’Neill’s ghosts—there is a point where theatre, at this level, can only be discussed as a kind of madness. Yet, this production is the type of off-Broadway work people think about when they defend off-Broadway—experimental and riveting, with a dash of the Next Wave.  Should scholars be intrigued, Mourning Becomes Electra is also prophetic, as Long Day’s Journey Into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten are foreshadowed.  

Usually, actors are the ones thought of as overtaken or overwhelmed by theatrical creation—and that is true here, with Eunice Wong, as a New England Electra (O’Neill’s favorite character from the ancient Greeks); the mother she hates, Stephanie Weeks; and the father she worships—as well as the brother she controls–Satya BhabhaKristen Calgaro, Avi Glickstein, and Mary Neufeld are the townspeople drawn into the tragic spiralHerskovits, however, seems to be feeling along with O’Neill–he has made  Mourning Becomes Electra a second-by-second explication of compulsion and demons, out-of-control–a body might fall off the stage then or a gunshot be heard. Every moment of his production expresses what O’Neill is understanding, thinking, meaning, recoiling from. An exhumation of the Nobelist’s body might even find that the two artists share the same blood type and genetic code, so extreme is the identification.

Highly recommended.   

MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA
by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by David Herskovits

Visit TargetMargin Theater: http://www.targetmargin.org/

LIMITED ENGAGEMENT | ONLY 17 PERFORMANCES

Abrons Arts Center | April 26 – May 20, 2017
466 Grand Street, New York, NY 10002

From Target Margin Theater, “known for radically reinventing classic behemoths” (The New York Times), comes a new marathon production of Eugene O’Neill’s epic trilogy, MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA. Part Greek tragedy, part family play, part history play, MOURNING mashes myth, Freudian psychology and melodrama into a marathon five hour production. Each of the three plays of the MOURNING trilogy will be staged in a different part of the Abrons Playhouse, with the audience served a pu-pu platter meal and snack as they move between spaces.

Featuring: Satya Bhabha, Kristen Calgaro, Avi Glickstein, Mary Neufeld, Stephanie Weeks, and Eunice Wong.

Scenic & Lighting Design: Lenore Doxsee
Costumes Design: Kaye Voyce
Sound Demon: Jesse Freedman
Mic Demon: Matt Good
Assistant Director: Claire Moodey
Stage Manager: Olivia O’Brien
Assistant Stage Manager: Violet Tafari
Technical Director: Carl Whipple
Production Manager: Neal Wilkinson
Artistic Producers: Sarah Hughes + Moe Yousuf

Photos by Kelly Stuart

A NOTE ON YOUR COMPLIMENTARY PUPU PLATTERS:
During the second intermission, the audience will be given a complimentary pupu platter (a bed of coconut rice topped with a delicious soaked tofu and purple sweet potato salad topped with scallions), plus chili lime peanuts on the side. It is is 100% vegan (and 112% delicious). The menu comes as is and cannot be modified. If audience members have any known / severe food allergies (especially peanuts) they are encouraged to bring their own food. Beverages will also be available for purchase.

Photos from top: Theatermania, University of Nebraska,  Off Off Online.

Press:  John Wyszniewski, Rachael Shearer Blake Zidell & Associates 

Article: (c) 2017 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved. 

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