A child snuffing out the life of a parent is one of the most shocking violations of our moral universe. Whether it’s the money-grubbing Menendez brothers or ax murderer Lizzie Borden, we usually think of these killers as demented.
But what of the characters that arise from the ancient Greek canon, where patricide and matricide recur? Oedipus famously slew his father and married his mother, gaining eternal ignominy. Royal spawn Electra and Orestes can’t be far behind, having taken vengeance on their mother, Clytemnestra, after she offed their father to be with her lover.
Even so, the sinning siblings make a case for our understanding — and sympathy — as played by Audrey Park and Kurt Kwan in director Rebecca Novick’s wrenching adaptation of Euripides’ “Electra” for Ten Thousand Things Theater.
Novick’s clear and compelling production epitomizes the style that has worked so effectively for the itinerant company founded 28 years ago by Michelle Hensley, the theater pioneer recently honored with a lifetime achievement Ivey Award.
Hensley, who will step down next spring, begins her final season with this play, which starts public performances this weekend at Open Book in downtown Minneapolis.
Part of her theater’s mission is to take bare-bones stagings of classics and new works to underserved audiences in shelters, prisons and community centers.
Ten Thousand Things’ métier was on full display Tuesday morning at the Wayside House recovery center in St. Louis Park as a performance gripped the audience. Top-flight actors delivered with potency and honesty in an intimate environment where there was no place for the players, or audience, to hide.
With its contemporary adaptations and bold casting choices, Ten Thousand Things often taps seasoned performers who are up for a challenge. The cast of “Electra” includes veterans Michelle Barber, Karen Wiese-Thompson and Thomasina Petrus, who do beautiful work as the chorus and in other parts.
The company also finds opportunities to expand our understanding of classic texts and to give performers — people of color and women, especially — access to roles.
Park’s star turn in “Electra” exemplifies this highly successful model. For years, the actress has performed mostly supporting roles for such companies as Theater Mu and Pillsbury House Theatre. The title role here offers Park a breakout opportunity, and she seizes it with aplomb, showing us the dimensions of her craft. Her voice is tremulous but determined and her body often shakes with the weight of her decision and her desires. Electra wants revenge, but she also longs for family, and for healing. In a visceral performance, Park evinces the character’s muddled emotional state.
Kwan matches that standout turn, giving Orestes gravitas and a keening desire for closure that encourages empathy.
The other cast members bring honor to their parts — Barber’s Clytemnestra appeals to our sense of justice by telling us how she was wronged; Wiese-Thompson and Petrus bring light to the chorus, and to their roles as gods; Ricardo Vazquez is heartfelt and solid as Pylades, Orestes’ best friend; and Mikell Sapp emanates dignity as the poor farmer whom Electra is forced to marry.
If we don’t quite buy that Electra’s only choice is to kill her mother, it’s because we’ve got therapists now. They might look at the situation and say, “OK, so you had a horrible mother, but she’s your parent, for god’s sake.”
Then, again, the gods are to blame for this mess in the first place. They make a sport of human frailty, stirring up passions that spiral out of control. Those passions — and the tragedies that attend them — make for the type of gripping theater that has become a hallmark of Ten Thousand Things.
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