The first New York visit by the National Theater of Greece since 1976, “Elektra” will be most remembered by those who catch the limited, six-performance run for the powerful lead performance by Lydia Koniordou (who also directs). Well-known in her own country, Koniordou makes her American debut as Sophocles’ mourning heroine, and she brings the ancient text to fierce life.
The production, which began an international tour at Epidaurus in July, is performed in modern Greek, and English supertitles projected above the stage at Manhattan’s City Center theater were blocked by a balcony overhang for almost a third of the audience in orchestra seats. Little matter, though: The focus here was on the visual, with tightly choreographed movement and bold, angry performances. Although not nearly as stylistically extreme as Ariane Mnouchkine’s 1992 “Les Atrides,” Koniordou’s “Elektra” favors a minimalism that seems both classic and fashionable.
Playing on a raised, slightly angled circular platform, the performers (including 17 female chorus members who travel in various configurations) pace the stage like caged animals the circled platform is even enclosed by thin, widely spaced posts, suggesting either a fenced-in area or, at times, a clock face, with the characters nervously circling a sacrificial urn at center-stage as if they were the hands of the timepiece.
Accompanied by Takis Farazis’ woodwind-and-percussion score, Koniordou’s staging of the Sophocles soap opera is a somber one, to say the least. (The limited run was wise: American audiences might find the production more admirable than emotionally engaging.) Performed without an intermission, the densely packed tale of murder and revenge builds to its harrowing climax largely through the gripping ferocity of Koniordou herself.
Koniordou’s take on Elektra is more defiant than mournful, a keeper of indignation over the murder of her father by her mother, Clytemnestra (Aspasia Papathanasiou), and the mother’s lover, Aegisthus (Stefanos Kyriakidis). Her black robes matching her long hair, Koniordou’s Elektra towers in presence over the other characters (robed in neutral shades and generally well acted), ranting at the gods and longing for the day when her brother, Orestes (Miltos Dimoulis), returns home to avenge the foul deed.
Orestes, though, is playing dead, hoping to catch his murderous mother off-guard. News of the death sends Elektra even deeper into anger and grief, and gives Koniordou her best moment, her performance gaining power even as her character nearly gives up: “Now I claim to share a grave with you,” she wails, the Greek chorus raising its voice in lamentation behind her.
When the revenge killings come, they occur offstage, with Elektra maintaining her place in the spotlight while Orestes does the dirty deed. Despite her mother’s wails for help, Elektra screams to her knife-wielding brother, “If you have strength, again!” A chilling moment in an uncompromising production.