Review: In Carey Perloff’s riveting production of Sophocles’ “Elektra,” Academy Award winner Olympia Dukakis and A.C.T.’s fabulous René Augesen enliven this age old tale of justice—at A.C.T. through November 18, 2012
With American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) and Berkeley Rep, the Bay Area’s two most prominent theatres, staging revitalized Greek dramas this November, there’s no escaping the enduring power of the ancient Greek classics. A.C.T. presents A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff’s production of Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Elektra — featuring a specially commissioned new translation by Olivier Award–winning British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, an original score by Pulitzer Prize–winning composer David Lang and Academy Award winner Olympia Dukakis. Across the Bay, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre has extended its run of An Iliad, performed by Henry Woronicz and adapted from Homer by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare with a compelling translation by Robert Fagles. An Iliad provides an unforgettable
oral overview of the battles and main characters of the Trojan War, which transpired some 3,200 years ago. Elektra is set later and focuses on the fall-out from one of those ancient wars and is a cause and effect case study in the ideas of justice and vengeance, pitting truth and deception against each other. Sophocles left it up to the audience to ferret out the ethics of avenging a strike to the family bloodline with more murder. Timberlake Wertenbaker distills the story brilliantly in her adaptation with poignant and, at times, very humorous passages which are enlivened by René Augesen in particular.
A.C.T.’s Elektra is a must-see for the exceptional women it brings together on stage— René Augesen, Olympia Dukakis, Caroline Lagerfelt and Allegra Rose Edwards. Watching A.C.T. core actress René Augesen over the past 11 years has been transformative—she just keeps digging deeper to deliver astounding character performances (she’s done over 30) that have come to anchor entire productions from Hedda in Hedda Gabbler (2007) to Esme in Tom Stoppard’s Rock–n-Roll (2008) to Ruth in Harold Pinter’s Homecoming (2011) to Beverly in Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park (2011). She always good but when she gets on stage as Elektra, Agamemnon’s grief-stricken grown daughter, it is like watching some sort of primal creature emerge. She readily delivers an Elektra who cannot shake the traumatic memory of her father’s murder by her mother Clytemnestra (Caroline Lagerfelt), an Elektra who is so obsessed, so stuck in grief, that she is incapable of moving forward in her own life. Augesen credibly sinks to the lowest suffering imaginable showing the heroic and tragic nature of her character. She is addicted to pain and we can all somehow relate to that.
As the entire chorus, boiled down to one character, Olympia Dukakis is formidable. The Academy-Award winning actress (Moonstruck), now 81, seems born dispensing wise counsel. At times empathetic, at times burning with intensity, she urges the distraught Elektra to justice, knowing full-well the blood that will be shed. Clothed in a dark gray tunic with an ornate metallic scrolling on the front (all costumes are by Candice Donnelly), Dukakis dramatically entered to the very minimalist music of Pulitzer Prize winning David Lang, which successfully evoked the sense of ancient rhythms and tones as they might have existed in that very time. As cellist Theresa Wong began keening and wrapping on her instrument, it was as if she was calling up the ancient spirits. As Dukakis took to the stage, she transfixed the audience and held them in her grip for the next 90 minutes. Her natural rapport with Augesen is palpable.
And lithe Caroline Lagerfelt, as Clytemnestra, Elektra’s adulterous murderer of a mother, is a model for glorious aging. She wears the trappings of queen hood well—exquisite jewelry and eloquent flowing gowns—and she feels justified in killing Agamemnon. Is she? Her daughter, Iphigenia, was murdered, in a deal that her husband Agamemnon cut with the goddess Artemis to save the Greeks in the Trojan War. As morally reprehensible as she is, she has a case, adding complexity to the drama. In fact, many of the characters feel justified in their actions in this play—Clytemnestra needs to extract justice on Agamemnon for the death of her daughter; Orestes needs to kill his mother Clytemnestra for killing his father; and Elektra feels bound to kill Clytemnestra and her new husband Aegisthus, but as woman, she needs her brother Orestes to carry out the revenge. With no divine intervention, Sophocles leaves the question of justice squarely on his audience.
Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis is cast perfectly in Allegra Rose Edwards (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2013), who has survived by living with the imbalance in the universe. Dressed in a ridiculous white dress haut couture dress looks like one of the impossibly impractical numbers that gets a full page spread in Vogue, she engages authentically with Augesen throughout the play, acknowledging that Elektra has justice on her side but she prefers to go with the flow. In one of the play’s most touching passages, Elektra finally persuades her to offer a prayer at their father’s grave that Orestes will return and avenge their father’s death.
Orestes (Nick Steen), Elektra’s brother, and true heir to the throne, was the weak link in the play. From the moment Orestes spoke, it seemed as if his lines were not deeply felt. Of course, he is younger and hasn’t suffered the way Elektra has. When he was very young, Elektra feared for his life and took him to live with King Strophius of Phocis, who raised Orestes with his own son Pylades (Titus Thompkins), who accompanies him to the oracle at Delphi. Then, with Pylades, and his Tutor (Anthony Fusco), Orestes travels in disguise to his former home to avenge his father’s death by killing his mother and her lover. Another Orestes might have brought more to the production.
Run time is 90 minutes
Cast: René Augesen, Elektra, Olympia Dukakis, Chorus Leader, Caroline Lagerfelt Clytemnestra, Anthony Fusco, the Tutor, Nick Steen, Orestes, Allegra Edwards, Chrysothemis, Steven Anthony Jones Aegisthus.
Creative Team: music by composer David Lang, cellist Teresa Wang, scenic design Ralph Funicello, costume design Candice Donnell, lighting design Nancy Schertler, and sound design by Cliff Caruthers.
InterACT Programming for Elektra: InterACT events are presented free of charge to give patrons a chance to get closer to the action while making a whole night out of their evening at the theatre.
Audience Exchanges: Sunday, November 11 at 2 PM, Wednesday, November 13 at 8 PM, and November 14 at 2 PM. Learn firsthand what goes into the making of great theatre. After the show, join A.C.T. on stage for a lively onstage chat with the cast, designers and artists who develop the work onstage.
Wine Series: Tuesday, November 13, 8 PM. Raise a glass at this wine-tasting event featuring leading sommeliers from the Bay Area’s hottest local winderies.
PlayTime: Saturday, November 17, 12:30 PM. Get hands on with theatre and the artists who make it happens at the interactive preshow workshop.
Details: Elektra’s limited run ends on Sunday, November 18, 2012 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. Performances: Tuesday-Sundays at 8 PM, with several 2 PM matinee performances, including Saturday, November 10, Sunday November 11, Wednesday November 14, Saturday November 17, and Sunday, November 18, 2012. Tickets (starting at $20 to $150) are available at or at act-sf.org or by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228
Olympia Dukakis narrates SF Symphony’s holiday performance of Peter and the Wolf
Delight your children with San Francisco Symphony’s annual presentation ofPeter and the Wolf including festive holiday songs for the whole family to sing—perfect for music lovers of all ages. Donald Cabrera conducts The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra as it performs Prokofiev’s charming tale with Olympia Dukakis narrating. Approximate length is 1 hour. Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 1 PM and 4 PM at Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets are $27-$57 for adults and $13.50 to $28.50 for Children. For more information and tickets: www.sf.symphony.org