The tragedy of “Elektra” echoes through the American Conservatory Theater this month, as Sophocles’ bloody tale of vengeance in the aftermath of the Trojan War once again casts its mesmerizing spell.
This is Greek tragedy with a difference. Presented in a newly commissioned translation by British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, acted by a vibrant ensemble cast and running a taut 90 minutes (without intermission), the production speaks to contemporary audiences while retaining the play’s timeless appeal.
The principal reason to see this “Elektra” is Olympia Dukakis, whose performance as the Chorus simply smolders with conviction. Traditionally in Greek plays, the chorus is performed by a group; here, Dukakis shoulders the responsibility alone.
The petite actress, a veteran of ACT productions such as “Hecuba,” imbues Carey Perloff’s focused, streamlined production with tremendous gravitas.
Draped in shades of black and gray (costumes by Candice Donnelly), Dukakis makes her first entrance from the back of the theater to the mournful sounds of voice and electric cello (score by Pulitzer Prize winner David Lang, performed by Theresa Wong).
Once onstage — a bleak construction of chain-link fences, barbed wire and wreaths for the dead (sets by Ralph Funicello, lighting by Nancy Schertler) — she consoles and advises Elektra (René Augesen), who is half-mad with grief over the murder of her father, Agamemnon.
The killer was Elektra’s mother, Clytemnestra (Caroline Lagerfelt), who quickly replaced Agamemnon with the evil Aegisthus (Steven Anthony Jones). They would have murdered Elektra’s little brother, Orestes (Nick Steen), but Elektra sent him to safety under the protection of his kindly Tutor (Anthony Fusco).
Now, Elektra’s only hope is for the return of Orestes. When he finally arrives, the gods demand justice.
Augesen plays Elektra with a compelling mix of impulsive rage and hollow despair. She’s in excellent company: Lagerfelt is a regal, venomous Clytemnestra, and Fusco turns his speech on the fate of Orestes into a vivid episode.
Steen is a muscular Orestes, and Allegra Rose Edwards plumbs the chilly depths as Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis.
Jones makes an aptly creepy Aegisthus, and Titus Tompkins is a sturdy Pylades.
By the end, though, this “Elektra” belongs to Dukakis. As the one-woman conscience of the play, she’s a powerhouse.