“Muscles!” the chorus cries, and each member flexes prodigiously. “Beauty!” they call, and cup their bosoms. “Fugitive! Orestes! Misery! Elektra! Sacrifice! Household!” Each term summons up a new slide of vase painting projected on a screen as each actor rushes to imitate it faithfully. Partly a production of Euripides’ tragedy and partly a demonstration of Greek iconography and stagecraft, Elektra by the Gardzienice Centre for Theatre Practices may also rank as the liveliest lecture on semiotics ever produced.
With this production Wlodzimierz Staniewski, founder of the 27-year-old Polish company (last seen in New York in 2001 with Metamorphosis), continues his exploration of cheironomia, a gestural vocabulary culled from Greek art. Actually, this Attic sign language is but one of the many performance vocabularies Staniewski and his actors draw on. They also make use of English, Polish, fans, scarves, swords, masks, folk dance choreography, computer animation, re-creations of ancient Greek choral music. All of the performers can contort their bodies into striking attitudes, their faces into tragic masks, and their voices into whispers or ululating cries.
Though based on Euripides’ play, Staniewski (with assistance from performer Mariusz Golaj) creates an aggressively nonlinear rendition. The familiar details such as the reunion of siblings Elektra and Orestes and the murders of their mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus are presented out of order and rendered symbolically. Themes of vengeance, justice, and sanity—all the elements that have attracted scholars and psychoanalysts—fall away. Yet this lack of plot never results in a performance that’s dull or difficult to follow; rather, it’s absorbing. If Staniewski declines to represent an Electra complex, he nevertheless provides a most complex Elektra.