Upon arrival at the Abrons Arts Center in the Lower East Side for Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, presented over more than five hours by the Target Margin Theater, audience members are offered a bag of chili-lime peanuts. The nuts are at once salty and tangy, with just the right balance of spice; the roasters are to be commended. Such a delicious treat is an excellent way to set a welcoming tone for what is a long evening of theater.
Matters take a decidedly downward turn after the welcome gift.
Target Margin suggests that it is “founded on the principle that works of art return us to real truths more powerfully by their divergence from a strict illustration of reality.” In the case of Mourning Becomes Electra, that mission is born out in a style that can best be described as a parody of a bad soap opera. Performers gesticulate incessantly as their voices travel through untold registers in the search of high drama rendered campy. Frequently, a bizarre and inconsistent soundscape—now ominous and foreboding, now bouncy and fun—distractingly underscores the proceedings as if to signal moments of particular importance. To be sure, under the direction of David Herskovits, all of Target Margin’s peculiar choices seem purposeful. But rather than elucidating “real truths” in O’Neill’s script, the production proves heavy-handed and overwrought.
O’Neill’s trilogy is his American version of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the story of Agamemnon’s slaughter and Orestes’s vengeance against his adulterous and murderous mother. O’Neill sets the story at the close of the Civil War as Union commander Ezra Mannon (Satya Bhabha) returns to his unhappy wife, Christine (Stephanie Weeks), and doting daughter Lavinia (Eunice Wong). Soon to follow is Orin (Bhabha, who pulls triple duty as Adam Brandt also), Lavinia’s brother who has been injured physically and psychologically in the war. Over the course of three plays, O’Neill unpacks the wrenching psychological trauma running throughout the Mannon lineage in what is one of the playwright’s bleakest tragedies.
Target Margin seems most interested here in the psychological underpinnings of O’Neill’s trilogy, as their gimmick attempts to excavate the deepest psychological emotions out of characters and thrust it forcefully to the surface. The idea seems to be to replace characters and all of their complex social, domestic, political, and emotional contours with something like a stylized dramatization of pure psychological turmoil. Sapped of full humanity, these characters are expressionistic renderings of psychology. The concept is not without logic—especially in the middle part of his career, O’Neill was fascinated by his characters’ psychological turmoil, and even tried to substitute emotion for humanity himself with the use of masks in The Great God Brown—but the execution is lacking, incomplete, and therefore jarring. We cannot overlook the actual humans on stage, and the characters who exist with myriad recognizable problems of jealousy, betrayal, and existential dread. As a result, expressionism falters and crumbles over the course of more than five hours, and we are left wondering why these people seem so distant and inaccessible.
The methods of Target Margin call to mind the stripped-down theater of Bedlam, but Bedlam’s productions are far more successful because that troupe pours itself into the plays and the characters, making the script the star rather than the performers. This Mourning Becomes Electra cannot escape the shadow of its concept, and so we are never given a chance to connect with the characters or the play. The audience spends five hours moving to various spots in the theater, enjoying a complementary pupu platter, and watching a self-indulgent production turn further and further inward, but never are we given a clear chance to recognize, associate with, or pity these characters
What we are given is yummy chili-lime peanuts, which leave a much more pleasant aftertaste than this Mourning Becomes Electra.