Here's What In Your Eye: Slinging Mud in Mary-Arrchie Theatre's Electra
Even to urban dwellers many generations removed from the soil, mud is a profoundly disturbing image—representing, as it does, both the source of all life on our planet and the ultimate fate lying at the end of its existence. So when Sonya Moser, in adapting Euripedes' tragedy of Electra for modern audiences, searched for a Central Visual Metaphor to invoke her heroine's obsessive desire for revenge on her likewise murderous mother, the answer lay in this primal substance. Before our story is over, we will witness slimy wet earth squeezed through fingers, smeared on faces and hurled at walls in a frenzy of sheer animal rage.
If this were staged outdoors, after the manner of the original Greeks, creating a wallow big enough to bathe a dozen hogs would be simple. This collaboration between Mary-Arrchie Theatre and Illinois State University, however, is housed in the second-floor Angel Island loft on a corner of Lakeview boasting barely enough green space to sustain a potted geranium. Despite Alexander K's painted scenic drop depicting Argos as a rural midwestern prairie community, Electra is forced to mix up her mud onstage in a bucket pre-filled with dry dirt, after dragging forth a fully-functional hose for the purpose.
"What we use is just plain old topsoil," director Moser admits, "The cheapest we could find. Daniel Machalinski, our technical director, brought it in all at once—if you look closely, you can probably see the bags just offstage left behind the performers. Emily Nichelson [who plays the role of Electra] measures out precisely fifteen cups of it every night."
How do you dispose of it after the show—especially washing it out of the costumes—without clogging the theater's drains? "We are trying hard not to ruin Mary-Arrchie's plumbing! We dilute it further with more water before pouring it down the sinks, and we scotch-guard the garments to make them water-repellent, though eventually the white dresses start to fade gray."
What about the actors? Do they clean up in the sinks, too, or are the tiny Angel Island dressing rooms equipped with showers? Moser laughs, "They wear their mud like a badge of honor! There is a shower at Angel Island, and the actors were very psyched about it at first, during our very hot tech week. Now, some of them wash in the sinks, and some shower at a nearby apartment where they are staying."
All that said, if playgoers strolling home from the five theaters strung out over Broadway between Grace and Buena Streets should come upon what looks like a group of young people on a zombie-crawl asking for directions to the lake, three blocks to the east, there's no need to be perturbed—it is summer, after all!
Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company's Electra runs at Angel Island through July 29.
Mary Shen Barnidge
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