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Two Plays for the Hellenic-Obsessed Set

This month, theatergoers have a chance to see not one, but two world-class plays drawn from ancient Greek literature and theater: The Berkeley Rep's production of An Iliad and A.C.T.'s staging of Elektra. Why are we in the middle of a Hellenic boom?

 Henry Woronicz's commands the stage alone for 100 minutes. 

 Academy Award winner Olympia Dukakis plays the Chorus in Elektra.

An Iliad

The Plot: The play uses material from the Robert Fagles translation of the Iliad (you probably read it freshmen year of college), but having a poet recite it aloud is much closer to original spirit. It begins in the ninth year of the war with an argument between Agamemnon (the father of Elektra) and Achilles, which leads the best fighter among the Greeks to sit out the battle in a rage.

The Production: Written by Tony-winner Denis O’Hare and Obie-winner Lisa Peterson (who is also the director), An Iliad is little more than a single poet (Henry Woronicz) onstage telling a story. Accompanied by (and sometimes terrifying) a musician (Brian Ellingsen), the poet unfolds the tale of the “rage of Achilles.”

The Highlight: It takes a skilled performer to hold the audience by himself for 100 minutes. And the script, which mixes passages in Ancient Greek, translated lines, and original material, rewards the audience’s comprehension (it helps if you’re familiar with the original poem). Of course, Berkeley Rep can afford to take a chance on this material: Half of the crowd in downtown Berkeley is currently teaching the Iliad—and the other half is taking that class.

The Moral: Rage, like that which grips Achilles, comes without warning and burns hot. Though its consequences might be avoided, that reconciliation comes only after the worst of the damage.

The Take-Away: An Iliad is bracing stuff—it combines the emotional dissection of an analyst’s couch with the agit-prop of an anti-war march. It’s politically aware, emotionally powerful, and intellectually demanding. Few shows can match its ambition or its success. It's brutal--in a good way.

The Details: An Iliad runs at Berkeley Rep through November 18th. Find tickets here.

 

Elektra

The Plot: After a cycle of murders and a palace coup, one of the surviving daughters, Elektra (A.C.T veteran René Augesen), mourns the death of her sister and prays for the return of her exiled brother, Orestes (Nick Steen in his debut with A.C.T.), to bring justice—by killing their mother (Caroline Lagerfelt).

The Production: A sobering and classically oriented staging that trusts the material, giving the audience a good sense of how it must have played when it first opened, more than two thousand years ago. This version, by Greek playwright Sophocles, is one of several to survive into the present day. Perloff first staged this play thirty years ago when she was in New York City. A 2010 production at the Getty Villa followed.

The Highlight: Thirty years ago, Perloff tried to convince Academy Award-winner Olympia Dukakis to play a role in the production, but failed. The two still struck up a close collaboration that has focused on the Greeks, and now Perloff finally has her wish: Dukakis takes on the role of the Chorus—the on-stage audience surrogate who observes and comments on the action as it unfolds. Dukakis prowls the stage and commands the audience’s attention from her entrance until the very last line of the play.

The Moral: The spirit of fury and the spirit of justice are hard to tell apart, and sometimes can coexist in the same action. The political power of mourning is not to be underestimated.

The Take-Away: Like a well-constructed thriller, every turn of the plot draws the noose draws tighter. Elektra is well worth seeing, especially for those new to the story. 

The Details: A.C.T's Elektra runs through November 18th. Tickets can be found here.

 

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