BWW Reviews: A.C.T.'s ELEKTRA Rages Now thru November 18
Murder, retaliation, murder. Philos-aphilos in Greek. Vendetta. Blood for blood, tit-for-tat… justice? A.C.T. brings the abhorrent cycle to the stage in director Carey Perloff’s Elektra, the stunning Greek tragedy that closely mirrors the vengeance/justice questions we grapple with in our own modern day democracies. As if to underscore this point Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new translation-adaptation of Sophocles’ 409 BCE play is spare and concise, making it all too clear that the politics of ancient Greece (writ small within the scope of one family’s vengeful history) and the questions about what it means to have justice and to be a just society, are still with us here today. Playing now through November 18, Elektra’s keening, mournful and blood thirsty quest for justice is challenging pedagogy but even more so, enthralling theatre.
Elektra is set in the city of Argos in front of King Agamemnon’s palace, a black fortress-like building protected by a barb-wired chain-link fence. The incongruity of contemporary façade and ancient play is jarring at first but ultimately scenic designer Ralph Funicello’s set conveys a feeling of sinister bleakness that spans time and place.
A.C.T. veteran René Augesen plays grief-stricken Elektra, who has kept up a decade long ceaseless lament for justice for her murdered father, King Agamemnon. Upon the king’s return from war-ravaged Troy, he was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra (Caroline Lagerfelt) and her lover, Aegisthus (Steven Anthony Jones) and this was witnessed by the young Elektra. “They took an ax and felled the mighty oak that was my father,” she cries and one has the feeling that she’s been babbling, muttering and screaming that same line to herself and anyone who will listen, so much so that her life has been destroyed by her pain.
Augesen holds the audience rapt with this fine portrait of a woman gone mad for want of justice. She hopes valiantly that her brother Orestes (Nick Steen) - spirited away by the tutor (Anthony Fusco) when he was a baby - will one day return to exact vengeance on the queen and her consort.
Untouched by the need for vengeance is her sister Chrysothemis (Allegra Rose Edwards) who believes that it’s useless to fight when she is powerless to win. Unaccountably costume designer Candice Donnelly puts Edwards in haute couture. Later Orestes and his friend Pylades (Titus Tompkins) will appear in sunglasses and twenty-something street clothes. While this mix of modernity and ancient text worked in Funicello’s set, here, the effect is merely distracting.
Elektra knows that her sister has been brainwashed by their mother and counters that “If they don’t pay for their crime then that is the end of human beings.” She yearns for understanding but it does not come from her sister.
Instead, helping her, encouraging her, challenging her through her misery is the Chorus Leader played by the remarkable Olympia Dukakis. What an amazing thing it is to see her on stage as she rides the waves of emotion that injustice and duplicity bring upon the house of Atreus, striving to bring clarity and insight to Elektra.
In the original Sophocles, there was a Greek Chorus made up of fifteen actors, but Perloff and Wertenbaker have gathered that collective energy and unleashed it in the person of Dukakis.
She is perhaps most powerful when addressing the audience directly. “Where are the thunderbolts of heaven,” she asks forcefully, every muscle in her face pulsing with fury. “And the raging power of the sun? If the gods see this and don’t react? Sweep inequity into The Shadows and look the other way?” Her piercing gaze demands answers but none come. Instead the action must play out.
Caroline Lagerfelt is delightfully wicked as Queen Clytemnestra. She treats Elektra’s pleas for justice with a flippant insouciance more appropriate to dealing with a whining teenager who doesn’t have permission to take the car. Indeed their barbed banter brought some giggles from the audience. At one point, when Elektra is deep into another diatribe about the murder, the queen remarks with a sigh, “It is always your father with you.”
But Elektra’s accusations finally hit their mark and the queen cries out that her actions brought justice for her daughter, Iphigenia, who was slain by King Agamemnon in front of her as a sacrifice to the goddess Artemis. Should Agamemnon not pay the ultimate penalty for that? “By what law is he supposed to die by your hands?” replies Elektra. “….because if you allow tit-for-tat murder then you will be the first do die if you ever stumble upon Justice.”
And there’s the rub. The king killed Iphigenia. Clytemnestra killed the king. Orestes kills the queen. Will someone rise up to kill him, thus perpetuating the cycle of philos-aphilos – revenge, heartache and more revenge? Where does it end? Athenians watching this play finally chose the law over vendetta. Arguably, we have chosen the same. Or have we?
Elektra, a Greek Tragedy
Translation-adaptation by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Directed by Carey Perloff
Playing now thru Nov. 18
American Conservatory Theater
Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne