''Electra'' by Sophocles.
Directed by Peter Stein for the National Theatre of Greece at City Center, Main Stage, 130 W. 55 St, NYC
for six performances Oct. 10-14. Tickets $35-70. 212-581-1212 or www.nycitycenter.org.
Reviewed by Glenda Frank
When Sigmund Freud read Sophocles' tragedy about family murder and obsession, he recognized the pathology and so titled a daughter's infatuation for her father an Electra complex. The National Theatre of Greece has brought us the original, slightly adapted but still in Greek (modern) with supertitles, and staged by the internationally celebrated German director Peter Stein at City Center's Main Stage. The return of the national theatre for six performances at City Center is always an event, but this year it is a little disappointing. The production has many impressive moments, but it is emotionally unengaging.
Director Stein read the play as a pure revenge drama. Electra wants justice for her mother, Clytemnestra, and step-father, Aegisthus's murder of father, Agamemnon, in an earlier play. She and her sister, Chrysothemis (Kora Karvouni), are virtual prisoners, unmarried and watched carefully. Many years before, Electra had secreted her infant brother, Orestes, away for safety. She is awaiting his return as the hero who will avenge their father's assassination. While waiting, grief had maddened her. She raves, covered in filth, wearing a black short skirt, blouse and boots, while the chorus of 15 women and her sister are clad in long summer whites.
The drama is composed of quick, sharp emotional turns, triggered by arrivals and news. The Greek audience, knowing the plot, judged the drama on how the playwright re-envisioned the story, and Sophocles was a prize-winner. "The texts are too strange, too distanced to start from yourself and your own experience," Stein told an interviewer. His struggle with the script resulted in some startling stage epiphanies and some repetitive stretches.
The chorus is his triumph. Rarely has the Greek chorus been conceived so creatively and to such great effect. The fifteen lovely young actresses, representing the daughter of the town who sympathize with Electra's plight, sing and chant, often at once in contrapuntal harmonies that transcend the meaning of the words and evoke the mythic. As they move in a large circle, in small groups, cluster around the stage, or join together as a line facing us, the individual performers retain individuality without upstaging Electra. Each moment and each corner of the stage has its own small drama, mirroring on a more human scale Electra's operatic intensity. They comfort, observes and champion the abused princess, securing audience empathy.
Electra (Stefania Goulioti), crawling from a basement window of the ugly, constructivist grey palace, seems more feral than human. She commands the stage in an Expressionistic performance (resembling a silent-film interpretation in its exaggeration and postures), but after the first hour of this one-note rendition, the novelty and her compulsive sweeping wear thin. Late in the play, she strips and cleanses herself in the two fountains flanking the palace, then dons a white dress, but at this point the gestures are more sensationalism than organic. Orestes (Apostolis Totsikas) is a bearded, pony-tailed hunk, who carries himself and speaks his line with dignity and force, but without affect.
The minor characters fare far better. Karyofyllia Karabeti as Clytemnestra in a vivid green satin gown, provides a range of strong reactions, pulling us to her emotionally – in her fights with Electra, her stylized prayer offering, her ambivalent toward the false news of her son's death, and especially in her defiant resignation when Orestes reveals himself only to sentence her to death. She compels us to imagine her triumph in revenging her daughter Iphigenia's death on her husband and her conflicted love for her son. (Stein seems to have been inspired by Eugene O'Neill's "Mourning Becomes Electra." O'Neill's Clytemnestra wears a vivid green gown and his Electra is also all angles and elbows and head-to-toe in black.)
Lazaros Georgakopoulos' Aegisthus in a pony tail and riding boots is a welcome, last act surprise. He's alive with emotions, suspicions, and idiosyncratic gestures even while he remains the commander. It's a very attractive combination and the stage ignites until he too must enter the palace for the off-stage violence typical of Greek theatre. Yannis Fertis as Orestes' tutor gets so passionately into the heart of the lie he tells the queen to mislead her that he almost has us believing that Orestes died.
The elegant simplicity and poignancy of the chorus and the ingenious performances in the minor roles make this "Electra" memorable although they do not quite compensate for the uncoiling of the tight plot to a long two hours without intermission.