Sophocles’ “Elektra” is, in many ways, the older sister of “Hamlet”: a woman named Elektra (Rene Augesen) whose father, the king, was killed by her mother Clytemnestra (Carol Lagerfelt), and her mother’s lover, is so destroyed by her father’s death that she is in a constant state of lament and eventually seeks vengeance.
Unlike Hamlet, Elektra cannot avenge her father’s death herself; instead, she awaits the return of her brother, Orestes (Nick Steen), who consummates the task of killing the new king. In the meantime, she mourns, whines and gripes, hating her mother and sister for maintaining her place in her mother’s favor. But where “Hamlet” was a complicated story of family dynamics, responsibility, the complications of love and finding one’s place in the world, “Elektra” is a simple tale of violence breeding violence, with everyone’s deaths preordained by a vicious cycle and by the will of the gods.
Carey Perloff’s new production is caught in a failed attempt to modernize the play, with a modern set, modern dress and sometimes-modern interpretations of characters, while maintaining its origins in Greek tragedy. The Chorus consists of just one actor: Olympia Dukakis. While she possesses the dramatic weight to carry out the role, she seems out of place in all of the scenes: without a program to tell you she’s the Chorus, you find yourself wondering who she is, what her relationship is to the other characters and why she’s there. The most problematic of the modern costumes is Elektra’s see-through costume, which is very distracting; she may be enslaved and a beggar, but without alluding to prostitution, it struck me as a cop out for suggesting her vulnerability and didn’t necessarily fit into modern times.
The set is part of the problem, too. There is a dark stately building, the palace, charred black and fenced in by barbed wire, which appears to be part of the modern – and corrupt – world. It is so cut off from the rest of the world, yet of rank similar to Hamlet’s Elsinore, that you can’t help drawing parallels to the homes of today’s one percent. But since the actors switch between modern diction and overtly dramatic line readings that signal they’re in a Greek tragedy, it’s hard to chronologically place the play.
But while the direction is spotty at best, the all-star cast does give a fantastic and weighty performance. The standout was Carol Lagenfelt as Clytemnestra: dressed to look like Queen Elizabeth during her Jubilee, she is cool, calculating, brilliant and just sincere enough to make us question Elektra’s vendetta and unwavering loyalty to her father – she did, after all, kill one of her sisters. Lagenfelt is best known on the small screen for her role as CeCe Rhodes on “Gossip Girl,” and there are interesting parallels to be drawn between CeCe and Clytemnestra, who both seem to sell out for wealth and comfort, yet still exude a level of wisdom that makes them impossible to hate, despite how we are told we should. Rene Augesen, American Conservatory Theater’s star actress (for good reason), does what she can with a character who could be one-note; Augesen’s Elektra, instead, is tormented, grieving and full of conviction. Additionally, both Anthony Fusco as the Tutor and Nick Steen as Orestes are absolutely perfect.
“Elektra” runs through Sunday, Nov. 18 at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco at Nov. 13-17 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 14, 17 and 18 at 2 p.m.