Penny Metropulos is directing “Electra” by Sophocles, opening Feb. 21, in Southern Oregon University’s Black Box Theatre, with a modern adaptation by Timberlake Wertenbaker. This classic Greek tragedy involves hubris, murder and revenge. Themes it deals with include fate versus free will, gender equality and moral ambiguity. I met with Metropulos at Noble Coffeehouse in Ashland.
EH: Was this play written around 430 BC?
PM: Yes, there was a lot of stuff going on politically. And there was also this real flowering of the arts and drama. I am again and again stunned as to what a masterful playwright Sophocles was, and that this play still lives.
EH: Tell me about the adaptation.
PM: Wertenbaker has a poetic sense; you can feel it in the rhythm of the language, but it’s not restricted. It’s free. It is contemporary, and yet it holds a lot of the muscularity of the Greek language. It has Greek invocations in it, which is kind of wonderful. The actors can relate to it in an easy way, so that we can get to the meat of the play. The play deals tremendously with life and death and light and dark.
EH: Why do we feel Greek drama so intensely?
PM: It is truth and basic true emotion. That’s where we come from. That’s the bottom line. It’s synonymous with all kinds of ancient cultures that call from the earth and from the gods. I think with that, you start to explore human nature and the things that we’re going through in life.
The play deals with justice. And we have to ask ourselves all the time, “What is justice? And how do you achieve it? And are you on the side of right, when you seek it?” What is justice to you may be injustice to another person. I think that’s interesting, especially for young people to look at.
The play is extremely human. It’s a play of emotion. The challenge for these young actors is to live up to the enormity of the story and yet work within a very basic truth. My objective in the play is for them to be as connected to the material as they can be, and to be able to express something with truth and clarity.
EH: Is it going to be stylized in any way?
PM: That’s an open question, as to what is stylized. One of the first images that I offered up to the cast was the very famous picture of the woman from Kent State mourning over the student who had been killed. I used that photograph because that is real, and it is Greek at the same time: Imploring the gods, “Why did this happen?” with arms outstretched — on her knees and facing out. We see it all the time, unfortunately, with what’s going on in Syria. We see mourning, we see keening, we see wailing, we see people in these horrible circumstances. Their physical expressions are not subtle, they’re large.
EH: Do you think that “Electra” is a woman’s play?
PM: I don’t think there’s any question about that. Every single woman in it is powerful.
EH: How does this story reflect what’s happening in our society today?
PM: We’re going to walk into the play, knowing what our world is right now, knowing who we are in our world, and that’s going to lay on any play we see, no matter how it’s done. Sometimes it may be overt, and you say, “Yes, I see it; it’s exactly what’s going on.” And sometimes it may be more subtle.