René Augesen (left) is Elketra, Olympia Dukakis (center) is the Chorus and Allegra Rose Edwards is Chrysothemis in the American Conservatory Theater production of Elektra, translated and adapted from Sophocles by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Below: Nick Steen (left) is Orestes, Anthony Fusco (center) is Tutor and Titus Tompkins is Pylades. Photos by Kevin Berne
Suddenly, we’re awash in Greeks. Must have something to do with the upcoming election. Everyone’s feeling deeply and internationally tragic. We have An Iliad over at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and now at American Conservatory Theater, we have Sophocles’ Elektra in a muscular and potent translation/adaptation by Timberlake Wertenbaker.
If I could take the thing I liked best about An Iliad – the extraordinary bass player adding live accompaniment to the action – and replace the cellist here (Theresa Wong playing a score by David Lang), who is kind of precious and distracting, we’d have a gutsy bit of the Greek that stood a good chance of actually offering catharsis.
As it is, this Carey Perloff-directed Elektra has some gripping moments, most courtesy of core company member René Augesen in the title role. I lost track, but I don’t think there was one moment in this 90-minute production when her face wasn’t shiny with tears. There were angry tears, self-pitying tears, wretched-to-the soul tears and even a few joyous tears. You get the gist: lots of tears. But this is a tragedy, after all, and one smothered in murder, vengeance and the so-called “justice” of the gods.
Wertenbaker’s translation/adaptation retains a certain formality, which is welcome. This is, after all, foreign to us and should feel foreign to a degree. That’s why it’s so exciting when the raw human emotions break through the Greek-ness of it all and hits us afresh, even 1,600 years later, which is amazing.
Augesen’s primal grief is powerfully communicated in a performance that feels at once epic and deeply personal. Auguesen is so good, she even makes us forget the unattractive costume Candice Donnelly has put her in, a sort of black negligee pant suit with tight black granny panties visible underneath (I heard someone mutter about their resemblance to tap-dance pants) and black bra. Is Elektra part of a harem? A sex slave? It’s mysterious, and not in a way that really serves the drama. But Augesen connects in such a powerful way, it doesn’t matter what she’s wearing (or not wearing, as the case may be).
In the role of the Chorus, Olympia Dukakis is warm and compassionate and powerful in her own right, and Caroline Lagerfelt nearly steals the show as Clytemnestra, the evil queen (and Elektra’s mother) whose intelligence is outweighed only by her lust for power (and, perhaps, lust in general). Crisp and regal and really mean, Clytemnestra is a juicy role, not all villain because her actions are propelled, in large part, by a mother’s grief over the sacrifice of her daughter, Iphigenia. She’s not justified, but she’s coming from someplace real.
Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis, is played with surprising complexity by Allegra Rose Edwards – surprising because when we first meet/see her, she looks like a high-fashion mannequin (the lacy white getup Donnelly has created for her is perfect). She says she’s grieving over the death of her father, Agamemnon, at the hands of her mother, but she’s aligning herself with those in power to protect herself. She advises Elektra to do the same (to no effect). But it doesn’t take much for Chrysothemis to fall apart, Elektra-style. Her haute-couture façade crumbles and the damaged person emerges. I was disappointed that once Chryssie leaves, she doesn’t return.
For my catharsis, I needed to see a Shakespeare-style sibling reunion with Elektra, Chryssie and Orestes (Nick Steen), who was exiled then reported dead then suddenly live and in person and hellbent on avenging his father’s murder. But apparently Sophocles doesn’t roll that way. Nor does he want to show tit-for-tat murders in view of the audience, which, admittedly, might be a little too low-brow slasher movie for a high-brow Greek tragedy. But when you get emotionally invested with these kids, you kind of want to see big things to happen for them.
And for me, that’s where Perloff’s production slips, even though it’s an engaging, satisfying experience. We invest in the characters, fall into their drama, share their fury and care what happens next. The emotions are big, but they don’t take that next leap and get bigger – the kind of big where you clutch your chest and your cheeks get as shiny wet as Augesen’s.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Elektra continues through Nov. 18 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$120 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.