by Richard Dodds
Sophocles, it is said in one account, died of happiness after winning a final playwriting competition at the Dionysia – the ancient Athenian version of the Tonys. The story is one of several likely apocryphal renderings of Sophocles' death, but by all accounts, he lived a long and productive life. That did not translate into the subject matter of his seven surviving plays, which all center around murder and suicide. While the Athenian theater did have comic playwrights, with Aristophanes the best remembered, tragedy, and its resultant catharsis, was the prestige dramatic format of its day.
Elektra fits firmly into the pattern, while also reflecting some of Sophocles' theatrical innovations that helped change the trajectory of Western theater. Director Carey Perloff's current production of Elektra at ACT amplifies on the innovations while preserving its mournful, vengeful soul. It's as fine a representation of the Greek tragedians as you're likely to find round these parts.
That does not mean it can't lose its grip on an audience despite the streamlined 88-minute translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker that Perloff first directed in 2010 at the Getty in Los Angeles. While copious blood is spilt, it is always offstage with a later description to come. That was the Greek way, and Grand Guignol it's not.
What do flow mightily are tears, as Rene Augesen spends much of the 88 minutes copiously weeping as the title character. She is mourning the death of her father, King Agamemnon, at the hands of her mother, Clytemnestra, who actually has some defensible motives for justifiable homicide. But Elektra is completely undone, as much for the loss of her father as for the overriding need to avenge his death. As her mother, sister, and stepfather admonish her to get over it, Elektra prays for the return of her long-absent brother Orestes to carry out the honor killings she craves.
Perloff's production merges classical elements with more modern motifs to mostly effective results. The exterior of the family home in Ralph Funicello's set resembles an early 20th century villa, and is surrounded by a chain-link fence topped by barbed wire. Costumes by Candice Donnelly are also a hybrid that are fine except in a couple of cases in which they veer into too-modern distractions. Those occasional distractions are also mirrored in Wertenbaker's otherwise robust translation that pulls occasional laughs, some intended, some likely not, with anachronistic phrasings.
Augesen must be applauded for sustaining the draining intensity of her Elektra, and Olympia Dukakis provides balancing concern and sensitivity as an amalgam of the traditional Greek chorus. Of the supporting cast, I especially liked Caroline Lagerfelt as Elektra's mother, who projects the kind of regal flightiness of such 1930s movie stars as Miriam Hopkins. As Elektra's sister Chrysothemis, Allegra Rose Edwards can't quite overcome her introduction as a clueless nitwit accentuated by a costume more appropriate to avant-garde week on Project Runway. The leather jacket and muscle shirt worn by a late-arriving Orestes is attractive on Nick Steen, but again pulls attention in the wrong way. Onstage cellist Theresa Wong provides doleful underscoring created by composer David Lang.
Greek tragedy is the forerunner to just about all of the theater we know today. But it is what it is, and that means it won't necessarily give dramatic satisfaction familiar to contemporary audiences. But ACT's Elektra goes a long way to filling that divide without violating its ancient Greek heritage.
Elektra will run at ACT through Nov. 18. Tickets are $25-$100. Call 749-2228 or go to www.act-sf.org.