As part of the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, Penn State NU. Musical Theatre will present a musical adaptation of a classical story through Saturday at the Penn State Downtown Theatre Center.
“Elektric” is a new musical by Caleb Smith and his twin sister, Emmie. Directing “Elektric” is J. Austin Eyer, assistant professor of theater at Penn State.
A musical adaptation of the classical story of Orestes and Elektra, “Elektric” pulls from all three major adaptations in the Greek canon — “Oresteia” by Aeschylus, “Electra” by Euripides and “Electra” by Sophocles. Even though the musical is still set in Argos at the end of the Trojan war, the writers have blended contemporary and timeless themes into their dialogue.
“This is also the first time Elektra will be written as a trans woman,” Eyer said. “The music that Caleb Smith has composed is stylistically unique and very memorable.”
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The idea for a musical adaptation of the Oresteia featuring a transgender Elektra was first suggested by Caleb and Emmie Smith’s father in March 2015.
“We had been looking for musical subjects and our dad’s idea caught our ear immediately,” Caleb Smith said. “Both my sister and I are fascinated by Greek theater and its conventions and the task of translating the larger than life problems and storytelling of the great tragedians into song seemed not only exciting, but natural.”
In the next few weeks, they read through multiple adaptations of the story and were pretty much sold.
“The story is a classic in every sense of the word,” Emmie Smith said. “It has murder, booze, explosive dinner conversation and even better, one of the most complex and fascinating female characters of the Greek canon. We knew the story of Elektra and Orestes was the one we wanted to tell.”
“Elektric” was a natural choice for the NU. Musical Theatre Festival, Eyer said.
“(Founder and artistic director of Nu. Musicals) Raymond Sage and I find the prospect of a musical with a trans character in the lead role an exciting and important endeavor,” Eyer said. “Caleb and Emmie wanted to write a show where trans topics are incorporated in a different way than a typical ‘coming out story.’ ”
The way Greek tragedy is presented and performed lent the pair a great challenge and delight in finding their own version of this classic story.
“As we wrote it, the political events of 2016 in particular also gave us a new inspiration to write about what it’s like living in an America plagued by political and social violence,” Caleb said. “This gave us a larger narrative framework to live inside.”
Eyer said he is excited to see and hear how the audience responds to “Elektric,” because their response is an important piece of information for the Smith siblings as their musical moves forward in development.
“I hope that the audience will be supportive of this new work, as they will no doubt be impressed by the talent of these two 19-year-old twins, already writing their second musical together,” Eyer said. “I know that they have a long and successful writing career ahead of them.”
Caleb and Emmie Smith contend that “Elektric” is not a “transgender musical” but rather a “musical with a transgender character,” meaning that, while Elektra’s gender is central to her identity and character, it does not propel her journey or the plot. The story is about a relationship between two children and their mother, it’s about abuse and identity, justice and religion, politics and media.
“Being trans, just like it is for most, is a part of you but not all of you,” Emmie Smith said. “It is not about coming out, it is not about transition, it is not about the things most LGBT stories feature. We hope that distinction will propel ‘Elektric’ away from being a one-issue show and instead let it bloom into the complex narrative that Elektra and Orestes deserve.”
In “Elektric,” the Smith siblings hope to create a character that transgender women can see themselves in.
“I love Elektra — I love her passion and her anger and her style,” Emmie Smith said. “She is the trans character of my dreams. I hope our audiences, trans or cis, can come away with a better understanding of our community and the multitudes of voices that are still going unheard.”
A festival button is required to attend performances.
IF YOU GO
- What: “Elektric”
- When: 2 and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
- Where: Penn State Downtown Theatre Center, 146 S. Allen St., State College
- Info: numusicals.psu.edu