AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Sophocles
Translated & Adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Music by David Lang
Directed by Carey Perloff
Presented by and at the American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St. at Mason, San Francisco / (415) 749-2228

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Echoes of the Trojan War and the generation-to-generation woes of Greece's House of Atreus reverberate in Sophocles' "Elektra," presented by American Conservatory Theater in a translation and adaptation by playwright-scholar Timberlake Wertenbaker.

In brief, the title character, played by René Augesen, is still lamenting the murder of her father by her mother and her mother's lover several years earlier. Elektra is hoping that her brother will return to Mycenae to avenge their father's death. Because of her loud, unending mourning, Elektra has become something of an outcast in her own home and may be teetering on the brink of insanity.

In a tense confrontation between mother and daughter, the steely Clytemnestra (Caroline Lagerfelt) tells Elektra that she had killed Agamemnon to avenge his sacrificial murder of Elektra's sister Iphigenia. Therefore, Clytemnestra felt her actions had been justified. ACT program notes go into further detail about all of the background leading up to this play, but Wertenbaker's accessible translation provides basic background information clearly and simply.

Running 90 minutes without intermission, ACT's production is directed by artistic director Carey Perloff, now in her 20th season with the company. Unlike many other classical Greek dramas, which use a Chorus of several people to comment on the action and serve as a kind of jury, this adaptation uses only one person, Olympia Dukakis, 81, to fill that role. With her silvery hair and dignified stage presence, Dukakis's Chorus Leader serves as a voice of reason and a welcome counterpoint to Elektra's rage. The Chorus Leader also helps the audience to explore the play's key questions about the nature of justice.

Augesen, an ACT associate artist, has the daunting challenge of sustaining Elektra's rage, grief and the frustration of being a powerless woman. She meets that challenge successfully even though her character's extremes can be a bit much to take at times.

Lagerfelt's Clytemnestra evokes little sympathy in her treatment of Elektra, yet she makes a persuasive argument for why she was so aggrieved by her husband. Nick Steen as Orestes, Elektra's brother, brings an aura of strength, resolve and heroism as he returns and fulfills what he and Elektra see as his duty to avenge their father's death.

Their sister, Chrysothemis, well played by Allegra Rose Edwards, has curried favor with their mother as a way of going along to get along, but Elektra wins her over. Among the other supporting characters, Anthony Fusco as Orestes' Tutor has a standout scene when he gives a vivid (but fictional) description of Orestes' death in a chariot race. Steven Anthony Jones as Aegisthus, Clytemnestra's lover, and Titus Tompkins as Pylades, Orestes' cousin and companion, complete the cast.

Ralph Funicello's set foreshadows the play's mood as the audience enters and sees a chain link fence topped by barbed wire stretching across the stage. Lighting by Nancy Schertler reveals the grimly black palace behind the fence and later uses red to symbolize the bloodshed within.

Costumes by Candice Donnelly run the gamut from, as Perloff says, ancient Greece to haute couture. The latter is seen in Chrysothemis, whose prissy white outfit evokes the mod mode of the late '60s or early '70s. Sound by Cliff Caruthers completes the play's design components..

Another key element in this production is provided by composer David Lang's haunting score, played and sometimes sung by cellist Theresa Wong, who sits on one side of the stage.

Because of its near-unrelenting keening, "Elektra" may be hard for some observers to take, but the acting and design elements are all outstanding.

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