Grief engulfs "Elektra."
Drowning in tears over the murder of her beloved father, Elektra throws herself into the ecstasy of loss and despair. While most characters in Greek tragedy are ruled solely by fate, she willfully courts destruction. She has been doomed not only by the curse of the House of Atreus but also by the force of her own indomitable will.
In Timberlake Wertenbaker's muscular new translation of the Sophocles masterpiece, it's clear that she cannot bend, so she must attack.
Carey Perloff first staged this incarnation of the Greek tragedy, in which Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis plays all of the members of the chorus, a few years back in Los Angeles. Now the director has restaged the blood-soaked tale of love, honor and revenge with ACT stalwart Rene Augesen in the title role.
While it's not as electrifying as Berkeley Rep's epic take on the fallout of the Trojan War, "An Iliad," this "Elektra" revels in a sense of clarity and purpose that's invigorating. Punctuated by the keening of an onstage cello (played by Theresa Wong), this thoughtful 90-minute production runs through Nov. 18 at ACT.
Augesen, who has played in everything from "Hedda Gabler" to "Clybourn Park" as a core company member, brings great sensitivity to Agamemnon's daughter. Elektra cannot shake the memory of watching him return home from the Trojan War only to be slaughtered by her mother Clytemnestra (Caroline Lagerfelt).
Emboldened by her thirst for justice, Elektra stands outside the gates of her family house, a haunted manse caked in grime (set design by Ralph Funicello), and keens for all the world to hear her unending cries. Clad in rags, her face a twisted mass of pain, she knows only misery. She cannot bear the thought that joy exists in a world that felled her father.
She ignores the wise counsel of the chorus (Dukakis) and refuses to be cowed by the power of the tyrant Aegisthus (Steven Anthony Jones). While her sister Chrysothemis (Allegra Rose Edwards) is prim and proper, eager to please and placate, Elektra is savage, almost feral, in her lust for payback.
Augesen may miss some of the character's jagged edges, her volcanic temperament, but she painfully captures the vulnerability at the core of Elektra, her inability to let go of the suffering that engulfs her. Her sense of outrage is as cutting as glass, her bitterness like lightning. After years of stewing in lamentation and bile, she has blackened her own soul in the bargain.
While the scenes between Elektra and her exiled brother Orestes (Nick Steen) lack power, Augesen's bitter exchanges with Lagerfelt are stunning in the depths of hatred they suggest. Lagerfelt is a delight as the murderous queen, who slew her husband to honor the memory of her daughter Iphigenia (whom Agamemnon sacrificed to the gods).
Dukakis, who has etched many memorable characters at ACT, including Hecuba, brings her always formidable intelligence and charisma to bear as the leader of the chorus. She embodies the empathy of the chorus, touched by the tragedy in her midst but still elegantly above the fray. Sometimes the actress seems saddled with awkward blocking, but she still manages to make the movements graceful.
David Lang's subtle score also finesses some of the production's false moments when the emotions seem forced. Some of the costumes also pull us out of the action (Edwards' dress seems to belong to another show entirely).
While this "Elektra" should generate more intensity as the cycle of carnage drenches the stage, the piercing cry of the cello lingers in the ears.
Through: Nov. 18
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $25-$120 (subject to change), 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org