Watch Live

Tweet TWEET

Sex, Madness Inject New Blood in Old Greeks: S.F. Stage

Intertwined tales from the ancient Greeks -- Homer’s “Iliad” and Sophocles’ “Elektra” -- are being retold onstage in powerful San Francisco-area productions.

“Elektra,” at the American Conservatory Theater, is a story of women and the bloody after-effects of war. The princess of the title is grieving over the murder of her father, Agamemnon, and plotting revenge against her mother, Clytemnestra, who killed her husband when he returned home to Argos after commanding the Greek army in the Trojan War.

The queen is now living with her lover, the pretender king Aegisthus.

“I share a house with murderers,” Elektra laments.

A woman, not a warrior, Elektra must rely on her missing brother, Orestes, to exact revenge, which comes quickly in this 90-minute staging. Directed by Carey Perloff, the play efficiently lays out the complicated back-story and propels it forward through the skillful women in the cast: Rene Augesen as the resentful Elektra, Olympia Dukakis as the Chorus and, in a spectacular performance, Caroline Lagerfelt as the wily and imperious Clytemnestra.

The action takes place on a grungy set accented by a chain- link fence topped by barbed wire guarding the entrance to the institutional-modern palace. The cast is dressed in vaguely contemporary costumes and accompanied by dissonant music from a single cello. Yet the play effectively taps into the ancient emotions of the story, thanks to the pared-down language of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s translation.

Photographer: Kevin Berne/American Conservatory Theater via Bloomberg

Olympia Dukakis as the Chorus in "Sophocles' Elektra." The bloody tale of revenge runs through Nov. 18 at American Conservatory Theater. Close

Olympia Dukakis as the Chorus in "Sophocles' Elektra." The bloody tale of revenge runs... Read More

Close
Open
Photographer: Kevin Berne/American Conservatory Theater via Bloomberg

Olympia Dukakis as the Chorus in "Sophocles' Elektra." The bloody tale of revenge runs through Nov. 18 at American Conservatory Theater.

These Greeks bear grudges that can never be erased. “Forgiveness,” Elektra declares when her sister urges her to submit to those in power, “is for cowards.”

‘An Iliad’

Compared to “Elektra,” with its multiple characters and elaborate set, Lisa Peterson’s staging of “An Iliad” at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre is simplicity itself.

The grizzled Henry Woronicz plays the Poet, telling his epic tale of men at war on a bare stage, using only a wooden table and chair and a suitcase as props. (He’s accompanied by a single string bass rather than a cello.)

Like Homer, he begins his story in the ninth year of the siege of Troy and focuses on the rivalry between the temperamental Greek hero Achilles and the Trojan champion Hector. The Poet sets the scene in a casual, conversational way, briefly reminding us of Helen and how she ran off with Paris to Troy.

Mortal Vanity

“Actually, Paris isn’t that important,” he says. “He stole Helen but he’s not that interesting to me.”

Photographer: Kevin Berne/American Conservatory Theater via Bloomberg

Caroline Lagerfelt as Clytemnestra, the imperious queen who killed her husband after he returned home from the Trojan War, and her daughter Elektra, played by Rene Augesen, in "Sophocles' Elektra." The Greek drama runs through Nov. 18. Close

Caroline Lagerfelt as Clytemnestra, the imperious queen who killed her husband after he... Read More

Close
Open
Photographer: Kevin Berne/American Conservatory Theater via Bloomberg

Caroline Lagerfelt as Clytemnestra, the imperious queen who killed her husband after he returned home from the Trojan War, and her daughter Elektra, played by Rene Augesen, in "Sophocles' Elektra." The Greek drama runs through Nov. 18.

What do concern him are the vanities of mortal men and the interventions of the gods. When Achilles is sulking in his tent, because of a slight by Agamemnon (him again), Achilles lends his armor to his closest friend, Patroclus, who is wounded in battle by a Trojan and finished off by Hector.

Seeking revenge, Achilles returns to the battle, slays Hector and tries to defile his body by dragging it behind his chariot in front of the city walls. (Apollo and Aphrodite magically preserve the body to spite the Greeks.)

Achilles, of course, is near his end as well, felled by a spear to the famous heel. And the sack of the city will come soon afterward, an event the Poet compares to Sarajevo or Aleppo. In its prime, Troy was a place with “a great sense of serenity,” and he makes you feel its destruction as a personal loss.

It’s a moving performance by Woronicz. His recital of blood-soaked wars, from the Punic War to the First Crusade to World War II to Afghanistan and Iraq, is as effective an antiwar statement as any protest in the streets.

“Sophocles’ Elektra” runs through Nov. 18 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Information: +1-415-749-2228; http://www.act-sf.org. Rating: ****

“An Iliad” runs through Nov. 18 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St. Information: +1-510-647-2949; http://www.berkeleyrep.org. Rating: ****


What the Stars Mean:
*****       Fantastic
****        Excellent
***         Good
**          So-So
*           Poor
(No stars)  Avoid

(Stephen West is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this story: Stephen West in San Francisco at smwest@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.