With his staging for the National Theater of Greece of “Electra,” prestigious Schaubuhne theater director Peter Stein proves a clearly conceived, economical production of Sophocles’ masterly drama can still viscerally engage a patient modern American watcher. Even if it’s in Greek.
Stein’s production opens with the Musician (Samuel Marieri) proceeding slowly down the aisle to the stage, playing his soprano saxophone somberly. He has many reasons to mourn: Agamemnon is dead by the hand of his wife, Clytemnestra (Karyofyllia Karabeti); their daughter, Electra, (a perfectly pitched Stefania Goulioti) lives with her mother in shame; her brother, Orestes, (Apostolis Totsikas) is in exile.
When first seen, Electra is filthy, streaked with dirt and wearing a grimy black dress. She is already wailing as she enters through a small panel in the chrome wall of her house, looking like a beaten dog emerging from a pet door.
As she cries, the Erinyes enter … and enter … and enter. It’s a surreal moment: One pretty young woman in a plain white dress walks onto the set, looks behind her, and another follows, while the first girl runs the length of the stage. The pattern continues until all 15 members of the chorus have entered. It’s a perfect way to realize the immense force of the gods in everyday terms: The demure-looking peasant girls vastly outnumber both sides in the argument that plays out onstage, and when they crowd to Electra’s side, it’s clear there’s no way to stop them. They speak with one voice and frequently, creepily, sing in a high-church sounding chorus.
You have to put serious effort into screwing up this play’s climax, but the preceding exposition can turn deadly dull very quickly if it isn’t competently dramatized. Thus, Stein and choreographer Lia Tsolaki have come up with a sort of orbital blocking trajectory when, for example, Orestes wants to reveal himself to his sister.
This circling around the stage mirrors the vast poetic stretch that always has to be navigated before anyone here can take action on another character. Like a standoff scene in a Western, it increases tension considerably.
The geographical illustration of the winding poetry is a welcome one (less expert tragedians tend to speed through their lines or fatally over-emote), even if it’s not always transcendent.
Stein comes up with some ingenious ways to illustrate Orestes’ return and subsequent vengeance on Clytemnestra, as well as Electra recovering the dignity she so lacked at the beginning of the play.
Stein has taken his time building to this climax, and his measured staging allows us to bring our emotions, especially horror, to the play’s bloody finish.