Sophocles' Elektra is a play about outrage, and revenge, and how deep the well of anger can go. ACT's latest production, directed by artistic director Carey Perloff and starring Olympia Dukakis as a one-woman Greek chorus, is much like Perloff's previous foray with the Greeks, Phedre, in that it's an uninspired museum piece on a contemporary set, though the acting here is top-notch.
A quick synopsis: A daughter, Elektra, is isolated in mourning her father and crying out every day for revenge, after her mother and stepfather murder him in the bathtub when he returns from the Trojan War. (His murder was, in part, revenge by her mother Clytemnestra for his sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia for the good of the war.) But Elektra is powerless to enact that revenge herself, and waits for her estranged brother, Orestes, hopefully, to someday reappear and kill their mother and stepfather and set things right. The majority of the play sticks with Elektra herself as she laments, and laments, and laments, the loss of her father, the evil of her mother, the injustice of the world, and the reported death of her brother. In other words, there's a whole lot of pain here, and endless amounts of anger.
Much to her credit, in the title role, ACT core acting company member Rene Augusen does a marvelous job. She wails, screams, and laments as she's required to, but she imbues the role with believable exhaustion and pathos. As the one-woman chorus, who acts as a kind of friend and therapist to Elektra, the great Ms. Dukakis does an admirable and at times powerful job, though more than once we felt like her talents were being wasted in the role. As with any Greek chorus, she's saddled with a lot of stark pronouncements and overwrought laments to the gods, and Dukakis's halting, New York-accented style doesn't always lend itself well. We'd almost rather have seen her playing the complicated, at times wicked Clytemnestra a role in which, notably, she was directed by a 26-year-old Perloff back in the 80s in New York.
Perhaps the best performance in the cast, though, comes from Caroline Lagerfelt who plays Clytemnestra here with queenly arrogance but simultaneously with layers of empathy and her own sublimated sadness. We come away seeing the character not as the evil adulteress of myth, but a woman buffeted by the wills of various men, and in search of redemption.
The new translation, by frequent Perloff collaborator Timberlake Wertenbaker, is hit and miss, with as many lines that revert to Shakespearean rhetoric and words like "beseech" and "yield" as there are bits of modern parlance like "mind your own business."
But all told, like 2010's gloomy and stilted Phedre, it's once again hard to see past Perloff's desire to educate us, to restage a canonized work for its own, unadulterated sake, to find any new theatrical revelation. The set by designer Ralph Funicello tries to transport us to a dark, contemporary, semi-Soviet space, but little else in the production lends itself to a modern lens. The costumes, by Candice Donnelly, were distracting in their oddness, especially the unfortunate sheer sheaf Elektra wears throughout the show, with black granny panties and bra underneath at least a dozen times we found ourselves concentrating on the weirdness of this outfit instead of what she was saying.
And for all her love of this play and the Greeks in general, and her description of it as "a thriller, a courtroom drama, a lamentation, and a celebration," Perloff as director isn't able to share it with us with a vision that brings us to our feet with her. She presents it with a reverent enthusiasm, and a surplus of respect for the text, but it left us feeling like we'd just taken a class and not like we'd just seen a great work of art.
Elektra plays through November 18. Tickets here.