A group of people gathers in an outdoor amphitheater, under a canopy of oak tree branches. As they take their seats, evocative music begins to play, and a troupe of players begins its reenactment of a timeless tale — a sad story of how grief can morph into hatred and destroy a family.
The scene could be ancient Athens or nearly anywhere else in the Western world over the past couple of millennia. But for the next two weekends, it will take place on the campus of Westmont College, as the school’s consistently innovative theater department presents one of the masterpieces of Greek tragedy: Sophocles’s Electra.
“I wasn’t interested in replicating ancient Greek theater conventions,” said director Mitchell Thomas, “but I wanted to connect to that amazing tradition, so I made the decision to stage it outdoors.
“I got into a golf cart and drove around the Westmont campus, looking for a place that not only had easy access but also felt removed so that you could squint your eyes and imagine it was 2,500 years ago.”
Thomas hopes the outdoor setting will strike some chords deep in our collective unconscious, adding to the emotional impact of one of the most powerful plays in the Western canon. It focuses on the title character’s campaign of vengeance against her mother, who killed her husband — Electra’s father — years earlier. Mom was motivated by the fact that her husband, Agamemnon, had sacrificed another of their daughters to appease the gods and help him win a war.
It’s a classic tale of the cycle of violence, with the actions of one generation poisoning the next. But Sophocles, as channeled by contemporary British playwright Nick Payne (who wrote the adaptation Thomas and his cast are using), portrays it in poignantly personal terms.
“We feel very acutely the tragedy of this particular family,” Thomas said. “It’s more psychological [than some versions of the story]; while we fear what Electra becomes, I think we understand what got her there.”
This is Thomas’s first foray into Greek tragedy, inspired by a weeklong seminar he participated in two years ago at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C. It focused in part on the vital role music played in the original productions. Inspired by that knowledge, Thomas hired a composer, Eric Ederer, “an ethnomusicologist with a particular emphasis on Greek and Turkish music. We’ll have a total of four musicians who will play acoustic instruments. It’s new music written for this production, but it feels like it’s from that region of the world.”
There will only be five performances, on Friday, January 31, and February 1, 6, 7, and 8, all at 8 p.m., and seating is limited to 100 people. Thomas is hoping our unseasonably dry weather holds on for a couple more weeks, but in case it doesn’t, “We’ve ordered rain slickers you can throw on.”
Rain or shine, he’s thrilled to present this masterpiece from an earlier millennium. “How exciting,” he said, “and how humbling, to be a part of this 2,500-year-old tradition.”
For tickets and info for Electra, visit westmont.edu/boxoffice.