In its trenchant exploration of a bloody misdeed’s legacy, Sophocles’ “Elektra” readily admits contemporary parallels and insights derived from our understanding of the mind post-Freud. Carey Perloff’s curiously patchwork rendition at the Getty Villa goes heavy on the modernity, delivering the plot with easy-to-follow clarity while giving the psychology short shrift. It’s hard to infer from this production that “Elektra” is considered world drama’s greatest single examination of passion’s death grip on the human psyche.
Certainly the House of Atreus – where years ago King Agamemnon was slaughtered by his wife and her lover, now the reigning monarchs – is wrenched into our century as designer Christopher Barreca rings the Getty’s Roman facade in chainlink fence and yellow crime-scene tape. You can’t help but think of an embassy under siege, or miss the parallel to Eva Peron as, up above, the glamorous Queen Clytemnestra (a majestic Pamela Reed) waxes magnanimous to her subjects below.
Also down below, prowling the rubble like a feral cat, is daughter Elektra (Annie Purcell), heedless of her caked filth in her matricidal hatred and obsession for revenge. Using a sympathetic Chorus (Olympia Dukakis) as sounding board, she’s as monomaniacal in her grief as a war widow howling outside the White House for justice.
Brother Orestes (Manoel Felciano) is exiled and perhaps dead, but she’ll stay at her post until he, or the gods or someone, returns to strike down the killers.
Finally taking on the harridan at her gates, Clytemnestra alights in a flowing, flamboyant gown (designer Candice Donnelly boldly mixing modern and ancient pieces in each costume) to play out one of the all-time great two-person scenes, mother and daughter given equally strong arguments in their own defense. The dialectic is clearly parsed and riveting, queen and princess playing to the gallery in eloquent self-justification.
Still, there’s no need for Elektra to come across as a flinty Bryn Mawr undergraduate debater, taking the Con side in “Resolved: The king’s assassination was justified.” Not for a moment does Purcell present a woman overcome by the Furies. Vocally limited by an incessant throaty sob, Purcell is obdurate in a conventional, rhetorical way, going through the motions of unbridled grief while the control never wavers. “There are not enough tears to cool my heart,” this coldest of Elektras unconvincingly intones.
The playing at emotionality, rather than embodying it, pervades the swift but largely unmoving 90-minute production. Felciano’s Orestes and Jack Willis’ Tutor are orators only, while Linda Park as sister Chrysothemis, who has made her peace with her mother’s sin, wanders in and out unfocused. When characters break into spoken or sung snatches of Greek, it seems merely the demand of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s translation, not the irresistible impulse of those for whom English is momentarily inadequate.
The ringing exceptions are Reed (who has played Elektra for Perloff before) and Dukakis, whose affinity for Attic tragedy is surely in her DNA. Reed nimbly tightrope-walks between the ancient and modern worlds: She conveys a legendary monarch’s authority, but her peals of relieved laughter at the report of Orestes’ death – now she’s free of his vengeful spirit – ring true for any era.
For Dukakis’ part, as she urges the princess to action or caution, her haunted eyes leave no doubt as to the horrors she has witnessed and knows will follow. Arms raised to implore heaven’s intercession or fist pounding chest in grief, her every gesture serves to communicate; this is a study in the art of acting.
Sophocles’ dramatis personae all speak with anguish and dread of the family’s curse, but only Dukakis and Reed make us feel what’s at stake in its purgation.