PERFORMANCE

WHEN 90 MINUTES FEEL LIKE 20

a review of ACT's production of Sophocles' Elektra, playing until November 18th

By Alexander Quionones-Bangs


Photo: Kevin Berne
The Geary Theater is not small, and at over a thousand seats it’s hard to feel cozy or intimate. Designer Ralph Funicello decided to take advantage of this, pushing the set into our faces and making it seem as if the actors are about to fall into our laps and soak our clothes with their blood. It’s an exciting gambit and right in line with the aesthetic aims of ACT’s production of Sophocles’ Elektra, which manages to make 90 minutes feel like 20. That’s a fantastic achievement. Yet, I kept wondering throughout Carey Perloff’s super-charged production if contemporary audiences, including me, could still relate to the force of this 2,500-year-old tale and Sophocles’ way of telling it. You can definitely feel the distance, both in its conventions and concerns, and yet there are parts of Elektra that are as violently explosive and sharp as any action movie made today.

It’s autumn when the play begins, and not just outside—the stage is littered with leaves, sticks, and other natural detritus that Elektra (Rene Augesen) spends much time writhing around in and throwing at her mother. This is not the happy November of thanksgiving dinner at mom’s, but the explosive end to a family that has been ripped apart by war, sexual betrayal, murder and political gamesmanship. It’s disconcerting to see someone who was once beautiful thrown into such physical and emotional despair and Augesen doesn’t hold back any of the ugly emotions that the play demands. Elektra might wallow in a righteous self-pity, both for her mother’s multiple betrayals and her brother Orestes’ supposed death, but here she is literally drowning in a dead and dying nature. The image and symbolism are both effective and right.

Photo: Kevin Berne/Something's going wrong here
The fa├žade of the royal house dominates the set. Its classical proportions and ruling class feel are offset by a wire fence that forces the actors to the edge of the stage—everything and everyone just seems ready to topple over into the audience and that’s appropriate, because everything and everyone is about to topple over, albeit without our direct participation. It also allows us to get a very personal view of Elektra’s tantrums, the Chorus’ (Olympia Dukakis) shifting positions, Clytemnestra’s (Caroline Lagerfelt) posturings and Candice Donnelly’s gorgeous costumes. Continuing with the up-front-itis is Perloff’s choice to have the music played by one cellist (Theresa Wong), positioned somewhat to the left and side of the main playing space. Not quite part of the action, yet punctuating everything that happens, Wong stands somewhere between determining the emotion of a scene and recording it—either way, in Perloff’s sparse vision of Elektra, you can’t get away from the cellist.

Perloff really does keep Elektra moving—as the playbill notes, Greek plays weren’t meant to be sleepers, but the intense, heart-pounding thrillers of their day. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s wonderful translation helps a lot. There isn’t any real dialogue, at least as we’re used to it. The characters monologue at each other, but in straightforward language, no floridity here. This has the effect of making everyone, on stage and off, focus on whoever’s talking, to the extent that when a character responds to another it’s almost a shock. And again the cellist Wong is put to quite effective use. After one of Elektra’s particularly vitriolic attacks on her mother, a strong cello bowing calls out. This beautiful, but otherworldly sound startles us into thinking about the ramifications of what was just said and, more important, how to respond to it.

Photo: Kevin Berne/Tell us Chorus!
Sophocles’ Elektra is a classic and that’s one of the problems with the production. It’s innovative on many levels, but it basically leaves the play alone. After all, it’s been performed regularly for about twenty-five centuries, but there are parts that are just hard to manage for a contemporary audience. The play is slow in building: while the actresses (it’s all women for quite some time) start out with tremendous energy, the play itself is sluggish under the weight of all the back-story it must cover. One wishes for some judicious cutting. It feels right that Elektra is obsessed with the past, but it takes a little too long for the play to become obsessed with the present. Although, when it does start to deal with the present, ACT’s production has the headlong force of an energetic, intense thriller and you feel that what must have been thrilling to the ancient Greeks suddenly become thrilling to us.

Perloff’s choice to use Greek words as punctuation marks for intense emotions is the only place the production falls short. She says the goal was to use Greek the same way songs are used in a musical, as an expression of emotion too intense for words, but generally you can hear the lyrics in a musical. If you didn’t know it was supposed to be Greek, it would just sound like mumbling. We get that the actors are completely overtaken and exhausted by their emotions, but if they need to cry out they should just cry out. You don’t need Greek for that.

But I’m just quibbling now. The occasional mumble or slow start are nothing when you consider that Perloff, her talented actors and savvy designers not only manage to put a new and stylish spin on an old play, but also make it exciting to boot. That a member of the audience might never partake in or witness a vendetta is beside the point: the play aims to thrill, and it does so all the way to this day. Once the ball gets rolling in this moving and energetic production, it doesn't stop until it reaches its final, chilling conclusion.

For tickets go to www.act-sf.org or call (415) 749-2288
Photo: Kevin Berne/Something's going to go wrong
©CCA Arts Review and Alexander Quionones-Bangs

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