Ann Liv Young, a performance artist widely known for reinterpreting fairy tales with an edge, has reinvented Elektra. Her cabaret performance at Joe’s Pub retells Sophocles’s tragedy of a young woman’s ordeals amidst a broken family. This performance art piece offers an opportunity to ponder each character’s emotional response to trauma and — through a glass, darkly — your own.
What makes this performance art instead of theater is that the actors aren’t linearly reciting Sophocles’s script; it doesn’t progress scene by scene. Instead, this cabaret piece briefly introduces the story and then goes on to present pop music and dance numbers to explore each character’s emotional state. Based upon what scholars have pieced together, ancient Greek drama was likewise a mix of dance, spoken word, and song. So although Ann Liv Young doesn’t follow the script to the letter, her cabaret draws us closer to the spirit of the Greeks by integrating so much song and dance.
Each major character in Ann Liv Young’s Elektra Cabaret tries to break the tragedy with a different emotional code. All of us at times react sorrowfully like the wounded Elektra, cruelly like the controlling mother Klytemnestra, vindictively like the raging prodigal son Orestes, or vacuously like the denying younger sister Chrysothemis. The key to this non-linear performance is to contemplate each character’s emotional process and to seize this opportunity to reflect on our own relationships with sorrow, cruelty, rage, and denial. The chorus, represented by a blonde singing guitarist on stage, helps the audience to do just that.
Elektra feels deep sorrow and mourns the death of her father. Her father left her to go to war in Troy when she was little. Less nobly, he took a younger lover while overseas and sacrificed Elektra’s youngest sister, Iphigenia, to the gods to the win that war. Upon her dad’s return to Greece, Elektra’s mother, Klytemnestra, murdered him on the spot — cheating and filicide were too much for her.
After the death of her father, Elektra then lost her brother, who was banished by her mother as a preventive measure since he was furious about losing his father. Elektra’s new stepfather never took to her. Nor did Klytemnestra ever care for her daughter — Elektra could never forgive her mother for killing off her dad. Traumatized, Elektra grew into a volatile, unpredictable, and depressive young woman.
Elektra remains a virgin. Hard-core intimacy issues stem from this rough upbringing. No surviving play by Sophocles mentions the goddess Artemis more than Elektra. Like Artemis, Elektra is a lonely virgin. Ironically, Artemis is supposed to be the protector of young women, but no divine force ever seems to have protected Elektra. Instead, she is haunted by a past she can’t shake. Indeed, although Iphigenia doesn’t appear in the original script, she makes a few cameo appearances as a ghost throughout this cabaret.
Elektra expresses her sorrow in one musical number by twirling a long rainbow ribbon to Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight.” The musician’s lyrics “the hurt doesn’t show, but the pain still grows, it’s no stranger to you and me” are mirrored in Elektra’s blank face which tries not to show the pain but it still oozes out anyway. She struggles to let go.
Klytemnestra will probably make your imperfect mom look like a saint. She treats her children with cruelty and hostility at every turn. She’s entitled to be angry that her husband, after killing her youngest daughter, cheated on her in Troy. However, it’s hard to justify killing her husband, abandoning her son, and treating her kids like crap as a response. There might be another way to deal with her slain husband’s bad choices.
Elektra blames her mother for how screwed-up she is. At one point in the original play, she chastises her mother:
Elektra: It is your hostility, and your treatment of me which compel me to behave like this, against my will; ugly behavior is taught by an ugly example.
Klytemnestra: You brazen creature.
Elektra: Look! You are carried away by rage, after granting me free speech you do not know how to listen.
Although those specific lines from Sophocles aren’t recited in Ann Liv Young’s cabaret, the piece explores similar sentiments. This treacherous mother first appears with a snake dangling from her crotch. Later, Klytemnestra and her younger daughter Chrysothemis fight in the nude with veils. Finally, in another scene (GIF below), Klytemnestra nonchalantly checks her smartphone while her daughter has a meltdown. This mother is never warm, nurturing, or emotionally present.
Orestes is the son that Klytemnestra banished — worried he would try to avenge his father’s death. Abandoned by both his murdered father and exiled by his mother, he develops deep rage. Once he is old enough, he returns to Greece to find his mother and settle the score.
In one scene, he goes berserk in the audience area unleashing all his fury in dance. A wrathful Kanye West song, “Black Skinhead,” reinforces this mood. Orestes’s typically male response to trauma — machismo and rage — drives the show’s climax when (spoiler alert) he murders his mom.
When Kanye sings about the rage possessing him, it’s a mirror for the fury that overtakes Orestes:
“Four in the morning’, and I’m zonin’
I think I’m possessed, it’s an omen
I keep it 300 like the Romans
300 bitches, where the Trojans?
Baby we livin’ in the moment
I’ve been a menace the longest
But I ain’t finished I’m devoted
And you know it, and you know it
Just as Klytemnestra could have handled her cruelty better, it’s an open question whether killing his mom is the best outlet for his rage. Do two wrongs make a right?
Chrysothemis deals with the trauma by suppressing all of her feelings, in denial. Whereas Elektra can never let go and forgive her mother, Chrysothemis simply pretends nothing is wrong, buries all her feelings, and fakes staying calm and carries on.
But then comes the inevitable explosion. In an intense dance scene to Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank),” all of the emotions she’s been suppressing come out in a sensual, angry, coquettish dance. When Lamar sings about how “some people wanna kill their sorrows” with alcohol, it’s about the false promise of denial that Chrysothemis latches onto. Like Elektra, Chrysothemis has picked up some weird ideas about sexuality and intimacy that come out in the hypersexuality of the dance. She goes to the opposite extreme than the virgin Electra.
These characters struggle to find a middle ground between denial and letting their emotions go amok. The message of Ann Liv Young’s cabaret, much like Greek drama, is a warning: find a healthy way to release and process your emotions, or else. Near the end, the four main characters stand on stage with butterflies in glass jars. Butterflies are often read as metaphors for the fragility of the human condition. In this context, they also represent how these characters aren’t strong enough to let go and release their feelings. They trap their emotions inside like the butterflies. A proverb sometimes attributed to the German poet, Herman Hesse, puts it best: “Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go.”
Ann Liv Young’s Elektra Cabaret continues at Joe’s Pub at The Public (425 Lafayette Street, NoHo, Manhattan) through May 20.