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

'An Iliad'
Henry Woronicz as the Poet in "An Iliad." The retelling of Homer's epic tale of the Trojan War runs through Nov. 18 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Photographer: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre via Bloomberg

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.

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.”

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; Rating: ****

“An Iliad” runs through Nov. 18 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St. Information: +1-510-647-2949; 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.)

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