There’s nothing like a Greek tragedy to make you feel better about your own life. "Elektra" is no exception.
After all, unlike the title character in Sophocles’ play, you probably don’t come from a long line of killers and rapists. And you probably haven’t spent the last few years wailing and pounding your chest about the murder of your father by your mother, waiting helplessly for your exiled brother to return to avenge Dad’s death.
Yes, it’s cheery material we’re dealing with here.
No one goes to see Sophocles’ "Elektra" expecting to feel uplifted. You expect to be put through the wringer. But with the magical catharsis of the theater, you also expect a emotional transformation.
Theatrical tragedy is a window into the bitter possibilities of human experience. It enriches who we are.
ACT’s production of the new translation of Sophocles’ "Elektra" by Timberlake Wertenbaker offers a version of that catharsis. Running at a tight 90 minutes, it features several strong performances and a spare musical score penned by David Lang and played by cellist Theresa Wong that punctuates the action beautifully.
But an overreaching for contemporary relevance undermines the power of the play’s punch. Despite the riveting embodiment of grief and fury by Rene Augusen in the title role, "Elektra" fails to draw the audience into an emotional experience of the tale.
Likely written between 420 and 410 BC, Elektra is one of the surviving seven plays of Sophocles. It’s a tale of grief, fury and intra-familial revenge.
For years, Elektra has grieved her father, Agamemnon. He was killed by her mother, Clytemnestra who rules with Aegisthus, the man who conspired with her in Agamemnon’s death. Each year, the two celebrate the anniversary of their crime with feasting and dancing.
All the while, Elektra (beaten, abused and disdained by her mother) wallows in sorrow and fury and awaits the return of her brother, Orestes, who has sworn to avenge his father’s death.
At first glance, it seems that Orestes and Elektra have justice on their side. But things are a little more complicated -- Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon came on the heels of his own heinous acts. He killed her husband and forced her to marry him. Later, he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to the Goddess Artemis so the Greek fleet could sail off to war.
Clearly, there are parallels between this brutal eye-for-an-eye world and our own.
Wertenbaker’s new translation was first produced in 2010. Directed then as it is now by Carey Perloff, Artistic Director of ACT, it was staged at the Getty Villa in Malibu. In San Francisco, the production once again features Olympia Dukakis as the one-woman Chorus.
While the original production had the Getty Villa as its majestic backdrop, in its current indoor venue the stage has been transformed into the façade of a blackened building secured by a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. Against the fence lie the aging remnants of flowers and wreaths.
The gated building is meant to evoke our post-9/11 obsession with security, the scraps of flowers modern day roadside memorials. But the set seems intrusive rather than a logical backdrop; a didactic instrument in the hands of the director.
After all, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are living in opulence, aloof from justice. I kept wondering why they would choose a palace that was so ugly, and why on earth they would paint their exterior walls gloss black.
There was a similar disjuncture in costumes. Ostensibly designed by Candice Donnelly to represent a blend of ancient Greek clothing with current-day fashions, they were instead a distracting mash-up.
When Augusen removes her jacket to reveal a sheer dress over a black bra and girdle, we wonder what statement is being made by her clothing. And while Dukakis’ sagging dress seems like something might have been donned by an overweight star in the 1980s, Orestes (Nick Steen) looks like he’s stepped out of 1990s Grunge Seattle, and Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis (Allegra Rose Edwards), looks as though she’d just walked off the set of "The Hunger Games."
Timberlake’s translation is taut and powerful, and for the most part its contemporary language brings the play’s harrowing emotion closer to current sensibilities. But even here the inconsistencies are jarring, with some over-the-top modern-day colloquialisms and other phrases quaintly out of date.
Indeed, it’s the players who shine in this production. Rene Augesen is outstanding in what must be an exhausting performance. She embodies Elektra’s rage and grief with sheer genius. Though there were moments-her reunion with Orestes being one-where I longed for her to allow Elektra a broader range of emotion.
As Clytemnestra, Caroline Lagerfelt is a true standout. She’s a woman who’s unrepentant and utterly convinced of her own righteousness. Her disdain for Elektra’s grief for her murderous father crackles with her every word.
In spite of her bizarre outfit, Allegra Rose Edwards shines as the sister who’s chosen the path of compliance and compromise. And as Orestes’ tutor, Anthony Fusco gives us one of the play’s most mesmerizing moments when he narrates a fictional chariot accident that supposedly caused Orestes’ death.
Disappointingly, Olympia Dukakis lacks the powerful presence in this production that we might expect from an actress of her caliber. This is due at least in part to poor blocking that placed her far too often with her back to the audience. But next to Augesen’s visceral performance, Dukakis seemed weak and unconvincing, as if she didn’t quite have her heart in the part.
However, the fault line that mars ACT’s Elektra is a production is the fact that it never quite overcomes its own self-consciousness. The parallels it draws are just too clumsy. And, for that reason, it misses the mark.
"Elektra" runs through Nov. 18 at ACT, 30 Grant Ave. in San Francisco. For info or tickets, call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org/