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A CurtainUp Review
[The Blood] Electra

Do you know what it is to hate? Do you know what it's like to hate for twenty years? —Electra,

Petronia Paley as Clytemnestra
In another arresting and powerhouse production by Classical Theatre of Harlem, director Alfred Preisser has given Greek classic Electra new life. While this Electra bears only passing resemblance to its Greek predecessors, the story comes alive in a wholly fresh and provocative way.

There are many versions of the myth of the House of Atreus, and some of the details vary (plays about Electra have been written by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes). Essentially, though it's a family murder tale., Electra's mother, Clytemnestra, murdered her husband and Electra's father, Agamemnon. Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to the gods, in order to get a favorable headwind so the Greek ships could depart for the Trojan War. When Agamemnon returns from the war, Clytemnestra kills him. Electra hates her mother and wants to avenge her father's death. When her brother, Orestes, returns from the war, she convinces him to kill Clytemnestra. He does, but is hounded by the Furies for the rest of his life.

In this adaptation (written by Preisser), Electra's (Zainab Jah) grief and impotence have driven her mad—she wants desperately to avenge her father's death, but is unable to bring herself to do so, since that would mean killing her mother. She lives in dirt and squalor on a nameless shore, alternately railing at the heavens and sinking deep into her mental world, accompanied by a chorus of similarly grieving women.

Clytemnestra (Petronia Paley) is an emotionally stunted trophy wife grown old and bitter, more interested in preserving the illusion of youth and beauty than in the well-being of her children. With her young lover, overdone makeup, and lapdog-as-accessory, she would be completely at home anywhere on the Upper East Side or in Beverly Hills. Orestes (Samuel Ray Gates) is a shell-shocked, battle-weary warrior, come home after years of war only to discover that his home no longer really exists. He only wants peace and quiet, but Electra pins all her hopes on him and finally convinces him to kill Clytemnestra. When he does, Electra is free of the cycle of grief and guilt and despair—but to what end?

Set in a stark Beckettian world of weathered wood and sharp angles, Zainab Jah plays Electra to perfection. Wild-eyed, raving and covered in diret, she is not the dignified Greek princess, trained to suffer in silence, that we've come to expect from the Greeks. Instead she is a whirling dervish of hatred and despair, lashing out at all those around her, hating herself as well for her inability to take decisive action. Paley's Clytemnestra, is the ideal foil—snide, brittle, and sophisticated to a fault. She has driven everyone around her so far away that it's easy to see why her children want her dead. Rounding out the trio of electric (pardon the pun) performances is Samuel Ray Gates as Orestes, the war veteran who wants nothing to do with violence or anger, and is instead treated to a homecoming of both.

Despite its brevity, the play moves a little slowly at times and the chorus of women never plays an integral role. But overall it's a haunting production, and definitely worth the trip uptown.

Written and directed by Alfred Preisser, based on the play by Sophocles
Cast: Zainab Jah (Electra), Trisha Jeffrey (Chrysothemis), Samuel Ray Gates (Orestes), Khadeejah Anne Gray (Chorus), Valentine Lyashenko (Soldier), Sandra Shade Miller (Chorus), Petronia Paley (Clytemnestra), and Christina Sajous (Chorus)
Production Design: Troy Hourie and Aaron Black
Costume Design: Kimberly Glennon
Musical Director: Kelvyn Bell Choreographer: Tracy Jack Running Time: One hour, with no intermission
Classical Theatre of Harlem, HSA Theatre, 645 St. Nicholas Avenue, 212/868-4444
Tickets $25-45; Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on June 3rd performance
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