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A CurtainUp Review
Mourning Becomes Electra

You've brought love - and the rest is only the price. -- Adam Brant to Christine
The damned don't cry. -- Orin Mannon

After Luis Alfaro's world premiere of Electricidad at The Mark Taper Forum based on Sophocles' Greek classic, it seemed appropriate to revisit Eugene O'Neill's version set during the American Civil War. It's been given a stunning revival by A Noise Within whose mandate is to present classical theatre.

It's rare that a city has a thriving theatre devoted solely to the classics, and some people would find it especially surprising that it's Los Angeles. But here it is and here we are, sitting in the catbird seat when it comes to considering two versions of Electra within a month.

The plays are similar in omitting the sacrifice of Electra's sister Iphigenia as a motive for the father's murder by his wife and her lover. Alfaro makes her an interesting character in her own right and O'Neill drops her, but you catch a glimpse of her ghost in the tragic character of brother Orin, whose guilt makes him sacrifice himself. Alfaro also omits the mother's lover, making her abuse by her husband the motive for his murder.

Without diminishing Alfaro's brilliant play in any way, it's instructive to re-visit O'Neill. More playwrights should do it. We leave the theatre questioning who is most guilty, Vinnie whose disappointment over losing Adam Brant to her mother Christine causes her to threaten them; Christine's plot to poison her husband Ezra with Adam's help; Ezra's insensitivity to his wife and family; Orin's weakness; Christine's inability to love Vinnie, the child of her hateful honeymoon; Adam's vengeful hatred of the Mannon family who disowned him and caused his parents' deaths.

Every scene in the trilogy is packed with excitement, psychological detail and builds to a suspenseful curtain. O'Neill is a lesson in structure alone. There's an element of melodrama but that seems appropriate in a play about that period, one in which O'Neill's own towering father, the most famous actor in America, made a fortune touring melodramas from coast to coast. O'Neill's own family relationships are fodder for his characters which make them bleed with tragic power.

Though their small arena stage has nowhere near the resources of the Royal National Theatre (we refer you to our review of their excellent 2004 production for more plot details), ANW suggests the Gothic mansion of this wretched and passionate family with Greek pillars, a few excellent antiques changed during blackouts and a cast so good they make you focus on what is important. Costumes are usually authentic, except for a curious choice in the green silk dresses worn by Christine and her daughter Vinnie. They are full-skirted ante bellum gowns but they're sleeveless, never an option then. They could be considered impressionistic dresses, expressing the freedom and sexuality experienced by Christine in the first play and Vinnie in the last play.

Deborah Strang heads the cast as a playful, fascinating Christine, ably seconded by Libby West whose Vinnie ranges from repressed fury to accepting herself as her sensuous mother's daughter. Doug Tompos, William Dennis Hunt and Geoff Elliott vividly portray Orin, Ezra and Adam respectively. They elicit a striking similarity from these men who are members of the same family. Toby Meuli is a fresh contrast as Vinnie's beau Peter and Amy Chaffee as his sister Hazel also projects a family kinship. Apollo Dukakis as the "Shenandoah"-singing handyman Seth Beckwith defines the family's status in their rock-bound New England society.

Co-directors Geoff and Julia Rodriguez Elliott have done an exceptional job. The climax of the boat scene seemed a little rushed and missed its payoff, but it's written that way. Particularly evocative was the use of the deceased characters as ghosts in the last act. A haunting production in every sense of the word!

Mourning Becomes Electra (London production)

Playwright: Eugene O'Neill
Director: Geoff Elliott & Julia Rodriguez Elliott
Cast: Deborah Strang (Christine Mannon), Libby West (Lavinia Mannon), Doug Tompos (Orin Mannon), William Dennis Hunt (Brigadier-General Ezra Mannon), Geoff Elliott (Adam Brant), Amy Chaffee (Hazel Niles), Toby Meuli (Peter Niles), Apollo Dukakis (Seth Beckwith)
Set Design: Michael C. Smith
Lighting Design: Jaymi Lee Smith
Costume Design: Julie D. Keen
Wig/Hair Design: Monica Lisa Sabedra
Running Time: Three hours 40 minutes with two 10-minute intermissions
Running Dates: April 1-May 29, 2005 (in repertory)
Where: A Noise Within, 234 South Brand Blvd., Glendale. Reservations: (818) 240-0910.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on April 17.

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