I don’t often write reviews, but I can’t stop thinking about Ann Liv Young’s Elektra, which played at New York Live Arts in January. I didn’t go to the show with any thought of writing about it, but afterward, writing about it seemed like the only way to process what I had just seen. In the performance, Young tells a loose version, twice, of Sophocles’ tragedy: Elektra and her brother Orestes kill their mother and her lover in revenge for killing her father, who killed his daughter. But the plot is not delivered in any narrative sense; rather it serves as a structure for a series of tableaux of song and dance. It is a karaoke cabaret by way of Artaud.
Inside and outside a circle of enclosed sand, the cast danced and sang to background tracks from an eclectic array of popular music: Pearl Jam’s “Daughter,” the overture from Annie, and guided meditation by Belleruth Naparstek, to name a few. Young, performing as Elektra, began with an opening monologue spoken so fast it was nearly impossible to understand. Mother and daughters engaged in a synchronized dance with precise choreography, showing the first pubis of many. The nudity reached its apotheosis when Vanessa Soudan as Clytemnestra performed a phenomenal gymnastic dance, on, over, and off a chair, turning herself upside-down and continually exposing herself to the audience. Again and again she ascended, leapt, and balanced on this throne, from every possible angle — and every time, she fell with a thud, legs splayed. The falls were real, as were the fights: after four shows, Soudan’s legs were visibly bruised, and Bailey Catherine Nolan wore an ace wrap around her thigh. This transparent physical violence was one of the many ways in which the performance manifested its intensity. After each of these strenuous actions, the performers’ microphones were turned back on, infusing the next song with the sibilance of their heavy breathing. Throughout all of this, the Chorus was played by a tiny pig that squeaked at all the right moments.
The subject matter was vivid, vulgar, and often horrific. In one passage in the second half, Charley Parden as Orestes and the Marissa Mickelberg as the Chorus took turns standing behind each other, petting each other’s hair, simulating masturbation and telling vivid stories of gruesome murder and necrophilia; Parden mentioned afterward that these were improvised each night based off prompts from Young. Later Nolan’s self-centered and aloof Clytemnestra discretely hiked up her micro-skirt and inserted a two-foot-long plastic snake into herself, then did a slow, campy dance. As she shuffled and turned, the snake trailed out from beneath her like a tail. Later the snake ended up head-first in Oreste’s mouth.
I returned from intermission early to find Lovey Ailish Guerrero, Young’s eight-year-old daughter, and Daniel Borg in conversation with the audience. Borg asked the audience to clap if they liked the show. After a shower of applause, Borg singled out a man in the front row who apparently hadn’t cheered: “Did you not like the show?” he asked. The audience member prevaricated uncomfortably, before saying he “wasn’t feeling it.” Borg followed up, saying, “Oh, you want to feel it? Is that what you want? You want feeling?” This awkward and aggressive moment hinted at what was to come in the second half of the show.
A few songs in, Borg was back, staring this man down from inches away, while Soudan, now as Chrysothemis reincarnated as Miley Cirus, twerked all over the woman next to him. The woman was laughing uncontrollably, but the man was crumpling in fear. I was 10 feet away and I was terrified by the presence of the performer. After a while, Borg moved toward me, and I averted my gaze. He certainly was feeling it now. We all were.
It is a truism that conflict drives plot. In the second half of the performance, the conflict extended beyond the bounds of the play, past the stage, and into the real. Young stopped the first scene to begin again, directing Mickelberg to start dancing at a slightly later point in the song. Later, in a tap-dancing number, she shouted and, visibly frustrated, picked up the 3×6 sheet of plywood she had been dancing on, flipped it over, and started it again. I did not notice this “mistake” as it was happening, and I could not tell the difference on the second take. Was Young intentionally emphasizing the mistakes?
These ruptures built over the course of the second half. At one point, Young stopped abruptly to confront an older man sitting in the front row, asking, “Is there a problem? Do you have a problem with this? If you have a problem we can talk about it.” He backed down quietly, acquiescing to her confrontation. I didn’t see what had prompted her outburst, but their dialogue implied that he had visibly reacted in a way that implied disapproval. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Young’s eight-year-old daughter, despite leaving for the most extreme masturbation scene, was part of the cast of one of the most intense performances of sexual violence I have experienced.
The conflict climaxed at the start of a rendition of Eminem and Rhianna’s “Monster” — a song about Eminem’s struggle with violence, drugs, arrogance, and madness, and his ultimate acceptance of these tragic flaws — performed by Young and Guerrero, who began the song with Rhianna’s hook, singing clear and deep:
I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed
Get along with the voices inside of my head
You’re trying to save me, stop holding your breath
And you think I’m crazy, yeah, you think I’m crazy
Then, as Young began Eminem’s rap, she stopped and, visibly angry, said the music wasn’t loud enough. They did a second take and a third, but still she was not satisfied. Mickelberg walked out into in the middle of the audience; were we now to become the Chorus, or was she just checking the sound? A theater tech emerged to say that they couldn’t go any louder because of feedback from the monitor. Young told them to turn all the house lights on, as she had decided to do the song in the middle of the audience, away from the monitor on the stage. Lights came on, and she yelled, “It is not enough, why can’t you get more lights!” A few more lights came on, but she demanded still more: “Why is this taking so long? Why can’t you do this?!” The tech, his voice cracking with fear and exhaustion, explained that this was not how lights had been set up in rehearsal, and that they were working as fast as they could. This was a real conflict, not acting.
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Eventually Young and her daughter performed the loud, aggressive, angry song. After that, I don’t remember how much longer the show went; I just know that when Orestes finally shot his mother dead, I felt intense relief that it was over. This was no conventional catharsis. In the first half, Young played a tragic hero; in the second she was a tragic hero, complete with hubris, a fall, and the most palpable relief I have ever felt in a theater.
During the curtain call, the performers raised their hands to the back of the house to thank them — all except Young. As I was leaving, I overheard one of the techs tell a friend, “Yeah, it’s been a rough few weeks.”
Ever since the performance, I’ve been thinking about both the intensity Young was able to produce and the ethical question of the way she did it. The conflict felt real because it was real. She asked an enormous amount from her performers, and they all delivered. I am troubled by the likelihood that her conflict with the technical staff was nonconsensual, and I’m not the only one who has felt this way. But I think her use and abuse of the audience was okay; we were there of our own volition, and we got to leave. Perhaps this abuse was even one of the reasons we came in the first place. Indeed, I will probably come again — though the next time, I will try to sit a bit farther from the stage.
Ann Liv Young’s Elektra took place at New York Live Arts (219 W 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) on January 20–23 and 27–30.