Dallas — Immersive theater appeals to the voyeur in all of us. The 2011 New York production of Sleep No More, a British-spawned, noirish version of Macbeth set in a five-story Chelsea warehouse decorated like a grand hotel, outfitted audience members in drama masks, then directed them to follow the play’s action up and down flights of stairs, crowding into bathrooms and leaning over seduction beds. Sensational stuff, and although the concept wasn’t new, the hit production has inspired theater companies all over the country to abandon the third wall and literally herd their audiences into the world of the play.
Now Dallas Theater Center moves Sophocles’ Electra out of its traditional space at the Wyly Theatre and across Flora Street into the outdoor venue of the Annette Strauss Square at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. There, the patrons follow the story of the anguished heroine, bent on avenging the murder of her father Agamemnon by her mother Queen Clytemnestra, to four sites, with chair seating for the entire audience only in the enormous grassy plaza where most of the play takes place. During the next 75 minutes, director Kevin Moriarty orchestrates the movement of actors and audience through the wrenching tale of a woman pulsing with the bloody need to kill her own mother.
The third in Moriarty's triptych of Greek tragedies, following Oedipus el Rey (2014) and Medea (2015), this Electra is a trip, literally and figuratively.
On opening night Wednesday, the delight of queuing to see a Greek tragedy at dusk was exciting in itself. The audience gathers early at a mobile box office near the entrance to the Winspear Opera House, where everyone is outfitted with sturdy headphones to block out ambient noise and hear the reassuring words of Alex Organ, the unseen character and voice of the one-man Greek Chorus, usually comprised of actors playing the virgins of the Mycenae Palace.
Ushers in bright orange shirts direct us to form a single file line and as we walk toward the first site, our voice in the darkness begins to narrate the background of Sophocles’ 400 BC masterpiece. As the evening progresses, our headphones function on many levels. Not only are we taken back in time and space by our electronic devise, we hear the voices of the characters as if they’re shouting or whispering in our ears, whether they are at arm’s length inside Agamemnon’s tomb, in a shockingly rippable set design by Diggle, or running half a block away up the grassy hill before Clytemnestra’s Mycenae Palace, a dark multi-story parking garage with empty black holes looming behind them.
Staging the chorus in producing a Greek tragedy is always tricky, since we don’t really have a convention like this in modern theater. Moriarty’s headphones as chorus are especially effective when Organ’s voice, an instrument of calm clarity, seems to function as the balancing, rational part of Electra’s distraught and vengeful state, evoking pity for her grief. Other times, the chorus voice seems to be egging Electra on in her murderous fury, contributing to the tragedy’s famous moral ambiguity. Broken Chord’s sound design and original music sends quietly ominous vibes through our ears, as we listen to the play, freely adapted for modern ears by Moriarty.
Abbey Siegworth, a former Dallas Theater Center Brierley Resident Acting Company member, is a gritty and athletic Electra. Her face and arms covered with dirt, and sweating from running amuck over the huge expanse of the palace grounds, she flings herself onto the grass and cries out to the high heavens and surrounding skyscrapers that she must see justice done. Driven and hollow-eyed from a decade of mourning her father’s death, she lives only to avenge him. Siegworth’s wild-eyed raving grows wearing in the longer monologues, although mostly we see her stubborn flagellations at a distance. She’s scariest in closer range attacking her mother, or when she moves into the audience seated in chairs at the edge of the plaza, and turns her glaring diatribe on a patron. When Electra recognizes Orestes (a stalwart Yusef D. Seevers) as her long lost brother, Siegworth is close enough for us to see her face lighten in joy for a brief moment, as she rolls in the grass with the brother she sent away many years ago to save his life.
Sally Nystuen Vahle’s elegant and sensual Clytemnestra is riveting. The play takes on the wrenching jolt of tragedy when she confronts Electra, telling her side of the story we know from ancient myth and song. She murdered her husband because he sacrificed their eldest daughter to the hungry gods to win the Trojan War, begun because his brother’s wife Helen ran off with the Trojan prince Paris. (Helen is Clytemnestra’s sister, BTW; both fathered by Zeus in the body of a swan who raped their mother Leda.) Steely and internally anguished to Electra’s manic frenzy, Vahle’s Clytemnestra gains our admiration and sympathy for her bold stance, particularly in an era when strong women are struggling to rise to true gender equality in society.
In one of the play’s most immersive and bizarre scenes, Electra accuses her mother of killing Agamemnon because of her lust for Aegisthus (a handsome, hapless Tyrees Allen), “that blood-stained beast you sleep with.” She grapples with her mother on the grand porch of a performance hall, while suddenly (and totally coincidentally) the neon lights on the enormous KPMG Plaza building, stage right, began crackling with red zigzags up and down the length of the skyscraper. Immersion moment!
Beautiful Tiana Kaye Johnson is a graceful and touching Chrysothemis, Electra’s gentle younger sister who is trying to protect herself and raving sister by keeping quiet. Johnson’s young woman is tearful and torn, trying to support her revenge-crazed sister without getting both killed.
Time flies, or carries you backward, when you’re in the middle of a myth, and before we know it, the evening is coming to a close, as we place lighted candles around the water plaza in front of the Winspear where the characters walk through our ranks and disappear into the night, leaving us in downtown Dallas, no longer in the throes of the bloody heirs of Agamemnon.
Who wins in such a terrible encounter? Did justice triumph, or did a woman bring about her own doom?
Electra leaves you asking such questions.
Tips: Wear comfortable shoes; leave bags in your vehicle (other than purses, they're not allowed in); there are ramps and other services for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Also, go to the bathroom before, because there's only one available (if the Winspear is not open), and that's in ATTPAC's Center Cafe (formerly ticket office and Pearl Cup Coffee).