By Marcina Zaccaria
Abrons Art Center, part of the Henry Street Settlement and originally designed as the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1915, is a fitting place to see a Eugene O’Neill play.
A different endurance test than the four hour Iceman Cometh, Mourning Becomes Electra takes place in and around the House of Mannon. References to the Civil War are in the opening speech from Abraham Lincoln, brilliantly delivered by Target Margin veteran Mary Neufeld. The House of Mannon, depicted with four columns that raise and lower to the stage, is a thorny mess. Filled with the aftermath of war, uncommon desire, and the need to relay the deepest sympathies, it is a land where Lavinia, Ezra, Christine, Peter, and Hazel, make their way through their shattered dreams.
Set design by Lenore Doxsee has a touch of idiosyncrasy. The lilac bush outside the columned home seems to have pasted fans, left over from an exhibit at the community gardens. However, it’s the revelation of space that makes this production so inventive. Expanding into the aisles in the second act, it nods to Turn of the Century arts, evoking melodrama. Lamps, provided by Lighting Designers Lenore Doxsee and Sarah Lurie, are better than candlelight.
Director David Herskovitz mentions in the program that with O’Neill’s work, one could “slide between different modes of expression.” This is apparent. While recent productions like The Hairy Ape include bursts of energy, this production of Mourning Becomes Electra includes actors pronouncing then fiercely speaking the words in all three sections of this play – Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted. Symbolic staging by Herskovitz captures targeted action, while other moments persist in the fringes. Graffiti stained back walls of the theater evoke Greek tragedy, as Mourning Becomes Electra was based on The Oresteia.
Eunice Wong delivers a raw performance as Lavinia Mannon. Her use of mask is exceptional, and every word she speaks emerges from a deep, visceral place. Satya Bhabha, first as Captain Adam Brant – then as Ezra Mannon and Orin Mannon – is charming and cavalier. His death scene at the end of Act One is almost operatic. Solid performances are provided by Kristen Calgaro as Hazel Niles and Avi Glickstein as Peter Niles.
Costumes, by Kaye Voyce, are both outlandish and provoking. Somehow, their incongruity is their strength. Christine’s green gown resembles something from a Diana Ross concert, and Lavinia’s black Puritan frock is a throwback to early America. The pieces are more fascinating than the whole. Not true, for the sound design. It takes a Sound Demon and a Mic Demon to put the player’s natural voice side by side with augmented, enhanced sound. It’s a unique listening experience, making the actors sometimes seem close or far away – an interesting calculation in the ongoing study of the relationship between distance and proximity.
To add to the five hour experience, a Pupu platter, consisting of tofu, rice, peppers, and some light spices were served after the second intermission. Chili lime peanuts were provided at the beginning. Light refreshments and breaks provided the opportunity for community, which is probably how Henry Street Settlement (and Abrons Arts Center today) has kept its doors open for over 100 years. O’Neill, one of the founding members of The Provincetown Playhouse, would have staged his first works in a place much like this.
Obie Award Winning Target Margin will strike a chord with follower of classical drama and contemporary playwriting with Mourning Becomes Electra. If the jarring nature of the stage picture leaves you baffled, the consistent quality of the delivery of language will keep you impressed by the depth of O’Neill’s understanding, and the fresh ability of Target Margin to keep theater and theater-making relevant and compelling.
Photos: Kelly Stuart
Target Margin’s Mourning Becomes Electra will be playing from April 26 – May 20 at Abrons Arts Center, located at 466 Grand Street in NYC. www.abronsartscenter.org