Theater review: ‘Elektra’ at the Getty Villa


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Thanks to psychoanalysis, the story of Elektra will forever be associated with the female version of the Oedipus complex. But Sophocles’ interest in this mythological tale has far less to do with sex than justice.

What distinguishes Sophocles’ “Elektra,” which is currently receiving a fresh staging at the Getty Villa’s outdoor Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, is the way the saga, often viewed from the vantage of Orestes’ impossible predicament, is dominated by the prayers and imprecations of an aggrieved daughter. This is one of the great character studies in ancient literature, a portrait of a bereaved woman who can escape her unrelenting nightmare only through more family bloodshed.

Although friend and foe beseech Elektra (Annie Purcell) to stop her lamentations, she has no desire to rejoin the contented living now that her mother, Clytemnestra (Pamela Reed), is living in the palace with Aegisthus (Tyrees Allen), the man with whom she conspired to slaughter her husband, Agamemnon. What kind of moral universe can allow these cold-blooded killers to rule with luxurious impunity? And how can Elektra follow the supposedly more reasonable course of her sister Chrysothemis (Linda Park), who accepts the unacceptable because she assumes she’s powerless to change it.


The best thing about Carey Perloff’s production, featuring a new translation by British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, is the clarity with which it reveals the political implications of Elektra’s grief. By making a public spectacle of her mourning, by loudly denouncing her father’s assassins, and by entreating the gods to bring back her now-grown brother Orestes (Manoel Felciano) to right the wrongs of her cursed house, Elektra wages an all-out war against a criminal status quo. But the line between defiance and depravity proves to be a slippery one.

Orestes’ arrival at the beginning of the play with his tutor (Jack Willis) assures that Clytemnestra’s comeuppance will soon be meted out. But the stealth with which he’s forced to operate protracts Elektra’s agonies to great melodramatic effect. As part of the plan, Orestes is proclaimed dead, and the scene in which Elektra thinks she’s holding his urn of ashes is one of the most moving in all of Greek tragedy. Perloff’s handling of this scene -- which includes haunting music by Bonfire Madigan Shive, performed by cellist and vocalist Theresa Wong and chorus vocalist Sharon Omi, who shadows the chorus leader played by the great Olympia Dukakis -- is shattering in its poignancy. (Ensemble member Michael Wells contributes percussive accents to the overall score.) Sophocles doesn’t question the righteousness of matricide as a form of revenge in quite the same pointed way as Euripides in his dramatic treatment. Nor does Sophocles dwell anxiously in the aftermath of Orestes’ actions -- the furies that preoccupy Aeschylus in the “Oresteia,” a trilogy about the self-perpetuating cycle of retributive violence, are not a major issue here. Sophocles believed in a self-correcting universal order -- deeds prompt counterdeeds -- and though individual suffering and death are unassailable facts, they cannot topple the reality of a larger (if, for humans, frustratingly inscrutable) design.

What continues to hold fascination for actors and audiences alike is the extremity of Elektra’s position. Her nature has been warped by her circumstances, and the vicissitudes of her journey -- from the extinguishing of all hope to the realization of her deepest homicidal wishes -- is gripping in its perverse intensity. She is a figure of colossal ambiguity, a victim who is willing to sacrifice everything, including her humanity, to rectify a savage and, to her, completely unjustifiable act.

The production ably gets the cathartic job done, but there are still some unsettled aspects. The ensemble, corralling a diversity of acting styles, hasn’t yet gelled. The characterizations are bold in a modern-dress fashion (Candice Donnelly’s costumes risk schematic caricature for their vivid effects), but the younger cast members have trouble handling the demands of the play’s language. To emphasize feeling, Felciano, Park and, to a lesser extent, Purcell clumsily italicize words. Dukakis and Reed, supple veterans of these kinds of rhetorical stage battles, show this isn’t necessary to establish color, and Willis, who has the most challenging speech (offering a play-by-play of Orestes’ fraudulent demise in a chariot race), breathes musical life into what could easily have been a quicksand of words.

Purcell’s ferocity is unrelenting, but I missed the gravitas of Zoë Wanamaker, who was a juggernaut in the role in David Leveaux’s 1998 Broadway production. The character’s somber wrath is rooted in a particular history, but the emotion needs to reach an archetypal level of magnitude. Occasionally, as in Elektra’s reunion scene with Orestes, Purcell finds the necessary stature.

One of the chief pleasures of attending these open air Getty Villa productions is the beauty of the surroundings. Christopher Barreca’s set, which employs a chain link fence against a glowing backdrop of the museum (currently showing the complementary exhibit “The Art of Ancient Greek Theater” through Jan. 3), thoroughly exploits the magnificent setting. This is a building that one can easily imagine Reed’s snooty, California-styled Clytemnestra calling home, while Sotheby’s might consider employing lighting designer Geoff Korf for its most posh real estate offerings.

Wertenbaker’s translation, flecked with wails and cries from the Greek, is still working out some verbal kinks, but it’s nice to see the Getty supporting the creation of new versions of these ancient texts. As this “Elektra” demonstrates, there’s nothing passé about the conflicts that test and define our most enduring values.

-- Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

“Elektra,” the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, the Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Ends Oct 2. $42. (310) 440-7300 or Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.