For someone as deeply steeped in the Greek classics as Carey Perloff, directing a site-specific production of Sophocles’ Elektra at the Getty Villa is like being at fantasy immersion camp. Especially when the creative excavation awakens new insight into ancient Greek theatre.
“It’s revelatory,” enthuses the energetic artistic director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) who has a BA Phi Beta Kappa in classics and comparative literature from Stanford University. “When you actually do a Greek tragedy in a space it was meant to be done in, you realize it’s all about the audience. The whole play is about the public. We are used to this dramaturgy where you pretend there’s a fourth wall and we sit in the dark as the audience and watch the characters. But Greek tragedy was staged in the daylight and the audience was absolutely central.”
Exploring Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new adaptation at the Villa’s outdoor Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theatre has evoked similar epiphanies in Elektra‘s multi-racial cast which features Annie Purcell (Elektra), Olympia Dukakis (Chorus Leader), Pamela Reed (Clytemnestra), Manoel Felciano (Orestes), Tyrese Allen (Aegisthus), Jack Willis (Tutor), Linda Park (Chryothemis), Sharon Omi (Chorus/Vocalist), Michael Wells (Pylades/Percussion) and Theresa Wong (Cellist/Vocalist). None perhaps as profoundly as in Dukakis, Perloff’s frequent collaborator and A.C.T. board member.
“Olympia is absolutely having the time of her life!” she laughs, having worked with the Oscar winner on A.C.T. productions of Virgil, Hecuba, A Mother, For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again and Singer’s Boy. “I mean she’s 79 after all and Greek. She’s spent her whole life doing Greek tragedy and never done it outdoors. She keeps stopping and saying, ‘This is incredible. This is incredible.’ Now I understand how Olympia as chorus leader has to look after the audience, connect with them, make sure they understand what their role is and that the play leaves them asking, how should we behave as citizens?”
The Getty Villa production represents a homecoming of sorts for Perloff on several levels. For one, the pre-renovation Villa was one of the first sites visited on an inaugural LA trip taken decades earlier. She grew up in Washington, DC wanting to be an archeologist. Her father took the budding explorer to lectures at the Smithsonian where she first heard Iris Cornelia Love who discovered and was excavating the Temple of Aphrodite at Knidos.
“I ended up writing a play about it many years later because I thought it was such an amazing story,” she recalls. “This woman named Iris Love was looking for this lost Aphrodite, which she never found. It was a big inspiration to me so I went to Stanford to study ancient Greek, then sort of took a left turn and ended up in the theater. But Greek theater has always been the thing I love the most.”
It’s not the first time Perloff has tackled Sophocles’ famous vendetta play. In 1987, she notably made her debut as the newly minted artistic director of New York’s Classic Stage Company by directing the world premiere of Ezra Pound’s contemporary translation, written in the 1950s while the poet was incarcerated in Washington DC’s St. Elizabeths Hospital for the criminally insane. Set in a mental home, the play starred Pamela Reed as Elektra, Joe Morton as Orestes, Nancy Marchand as Klytemnestra and Veronica Cartwright as Chryothemis.
“It was an amazing company and a very odd, extraordinary translation,” Perloff remembers. “Pound had his own, I think quite brilliant but very particular, take on the play as one about madness. He was incarcerated for insanity when he wrote it so it’s incredible what he did with it. It’s been very moving for me to go back to the play all these years later. To really return to Sophocles and to commission Timberlake who’s an extraordinary playwright. I’ve done Phaedra, Hecuba and Antigone with her. She loves these fierce women. This is the fourth thing she’s done with Olympia. So she really wrote the chorus with her voice in mind.”
The Villa production represents a multi-layered reunion for many of those involved. “What’s remarkable is how everything comes full circle. Pamela who was Elektra is now Clytemnestra. Olympia and Pamela haven’t worked together since they played mother and daughter in Curse of the Starving Class at the Public Theater in 1978. Pamela played Olympia’s part in the 30th anniversary revival we did at A.C.T. two years ago opposite Jack Willis. So it’s this sort of fascinating journey with all these different people finding their way back together again.”
Perloff is equally excited about her new Elektra, Annie Purcell, whose Broadway credits include The Coast of Utopia trilogy, Dividing the Estate and Awake and Sing. “Unbelievable. I haven’t been this excited about a young actor in a very long time. The play is about three generations of women. One of the things I love the most about Greek tragedy is the roles for women are unparalleled, which is ironic of course since they were meant to be performed by men. We still don’t really know why this impulse towards the heroine came about in Greek tragedy. It’s very puzzling since women were quite marginalized in ancient Greek culture from what we know.”
Last seen by LA audiences in Reprise Theatre Company’s Sunday in the Park with George, Tony Award nominee (Sweeney Todd) Manoel Felciano plays Orestes alongside fellow A.C.T. core company member Willis. “Because he’s also a musician, there’s a moment in the recognition scene that we set to music. I thought, if we have Manoel with that voice, we should use it.”
Elektra accompanies a new exhibit at the Getty Villa entitled The Art of Ancient Greek Theater now running through January 3, 2011. According to press materials, it is the first U. S. exhibition “in over 50 years to focus on the artistic representation of theatrical performance in ancient Greece.” The exhibit will be open at the Villa prior to each performance throughout its run ending October 2. Perloff came to direct the play via Mary Louise Hart, associate curator of antiquities for the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Norman Frisch, manager of the Villa Theater Program, who invited her to conceive a suitable companion production.
“I’ve known Mary for some years through Helene Foley, an amazing classicist at Barnard at Columbia, who was my Greek teacher at Stanford when I was 17,” she explains. “Helene is coming out in late September to do a symposium at the Getty with us. All these years later, she’s still sort of my dramaturge and mentor. I introduced her to Olympia so they’ve done a lot of work together. Mary called me and said, ‘Norm Frisch and I want to talk to you about this exhibition we’re doing. We’d love you to do the production in conjunction with it.'”
Perloff said she first thought of The Bacchae since it featured Dionysus the Greek god of theater, wine and other sensual pursuits, who is widely represented in ancient artifacts. “We looked at all these images and what was incredible–and it’s not surprising because it’s one of the great scenes ever in drama–was the scene most represented on vase paintings and sculpture is the one with Elektra, Orestes and the urn. The scene where he comes to her pretending he’s dead and she goes into a lamentation that breaks your heart, which becomes so unbearable for him to watch, he has to tell her it was all a story. It’s one of the greatest scenes ever written and sort of a fascinating love scene. Obviously the Greeks loved it because there it is on all these vase paintings.”
The trio agreed to the Sophocles’ version over those by Euripides or Aeschylus. “The Euripides is quite melodramatic. It’s the one opera lovers know better because it’s the one Strauss based the opera Elektra on but I don’t think it’s as interesting a drama. If you’re going to do Elektra, this is the great one.”
A Contemporary Vendetta Tale
Elektra may seem like a tale unearthed from an ancient civilization but its theme of personal vengeance amidst tribal loyalties sadly remains a headline news topic in our 24/7 news cycle era of terrorist attacks, suicide bombings, honor killings and public stonings.
The play begins as a sort of Act II in the House of Atreus saga, in which several years have passed since King Agamemnon and his concubine, the prophetess Cassandra, were murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, for the king’s sacrificial killing of their eldest daughter, Iphigenia, to the god Artemis. Mycenae is now under the duo’s rule and second daughter Elektra prays for the return of exiled twin brother Orestes to avenge their father’s death.
“The issue we’re dealing with in contemporary culture right now is tribalism,” Perloff points out. “There’s the law and then there’s tribal law and those two things never seem to sit well together. You can try and instill democracy in a country like Iraq but in fact what people are loyal to are their bloodlines. That’s really what these plays are about because Athens was such a new democracy. They’d gone through all that blood kin vendetta culture and were suddenly moving towards one of law. But the memory of that other thing is so present. The big question the play asks us is, is vendetta ever an appropriate way to settle injustice or is it just going to create a cycle of blood that keeps coming back like the Jews and the Palestinians over and over?”
According to Perloff, the play also deals with grief and willful memory. How long is it appropriate to keep watchful vigil over horrific occurrences and what is excessive grief? “I was thinking about this whole complicated question of whether there should be a mosque near the 9/11 site. That’s exactly the kind of debate this play raises because on one hand it’s such a wound. The people who suffered loss are saying, ‘Whatever happens we have to keep the wound alive. That is the point of a memorial: we have to remember.’ That’s Elektra. Cut your arm, tear your hair up, beat your breast, scream to the gods but don’t let time pass. Every moment, you have to remember. Then there are others who say, ‘Part of life is moving forward. You build the mosque, you bring people together, you try to heal, you don’t keep the wound alive. The point is to grow, let the scab heal over and move on.’
“There’s no right answer but it’s a question we’ve really been dealing with ever since the Holocaust. What is the role of memory in our culture? How dangerous is it to forget? But how dangerous is it to never let yourself move on?”
Getting modern audiences to grapple with these and other complex issues, including the value of protest vis-a-vis power, requires a highly skilled translation that honors the play’s ancient text without infusing modern day colloquialisms. Perloff thinks Britain’s internationally acclaimed Wertenbaker has accomplished just such a balance.
“I feel because our dramaturgy today is so literal and so based on television, the big metaphors an audience gets to wrestle with in Greek tragedy don’t exist the same way in contemporary drama. These are very real characters going through very real things but the metaphor is also very big. That’s what I like about what Timberlake has done with the translation. It’s not she’s updated it. The minute you say, ‘Oh yeah, Clytemnestra, she’s really a Beverly Hills matron and Elektra is really a hipster,’ it lets people off the hook.”
Translations of classic works often gain a fan base over time that colors subsequent viewings. How do you satisfy those who favor the Robinson Jeffers translation of Medea made famous by Dame Judith Anderson in 1947 versus devotees of the Alistair Elliot version that earned Dame Diana Rigg a Tony in 1994? Or the Balkan war inspired 2009 UCLA Live! mounting of Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael’s adaptation with Annette Bening as the titular lead? What does it take to construct a compelling contemporary piece that retains the theatricality some audiences prefer in their Greek tragedy?
“This is the thing I think is really important,” Perloff emphasizes. “The language in the Greek is quite heightened. What’s really particular about this play is the men speak prose and the women speak verse. So you have these two separate worlds. You have the male world of vendetta coming into this female world of grief and loss. When those worlds meet in that recognition scene, everything changes. Elektra starts to take on really fierce male discourse and Orestes takes on a sort of female discourse. So you have to look really carefully, sort of moment to moment, to see how the language works. I think it’s important that you keep the poetry of it. To me, it does destroy it in some way if you make it slangy.”
Perloff admits it is a very tricky navigation: honoring the original without presenting an old fashioned translation that makes the audiences only too aware they are listening to one. “You want them to feel they’re hearing real people speaking. The Phaedra Timberlake and I did was like that. That’s why I think she’s brilliant because she makes it very immediate. I don’t think there’s language in here that these people wouldn’t really speak today. But there are no anachronisms. She is unique as a translator because she creates very short verse lines that leave a lot of room for the actor.”
A big change in this production is Wertenbaker’s reduction of the traditional Greek chorus to a singular voice embodied by Dukakis, with Omi as a singing counterpoint, along with cellist/vocalist Wong.
“The first thing you’ve got to decide when you’re doing your Greek tragedy is what you want to do with the chorus,” Perloff explains. “When I did Hecuba, it was a group of Balkan women singers called Kitka. They sang and you had that sense of female secrecy, solidarity and mystery. I loved that. I like big choruses. What Timberlake said when she first translated the play is, ‘This chorus is unlike any other I’ve ever dealt with. It feels like the voice of an individual.’ The chorus has a very strong complicit relationship with Elektra because she has no mother really or no relationship with her mother. So she asked, ‘What would it be if it were just in one voice of a very powerful older woman?'”
Perloff says they’ve left a lot of the text in Greek particularly in the choral odes. Omi will sing and Dukakis will speak them. Wong will play cello as well as add occasional voice. “So there’s this group of women, each in a different voice, expressing together certain feelings or ideas or sounds. This wild sort of electronic cellist named Bonfire Madigan Shive is writing the score and trying to create something that fills the space but doesn’t violate the Getty’s no amplification rules.”
Still, how you do entice audiences who view going to see a Greek play as an academic arts exercise rather than entertainment? “I feel like it’s our obligation as theater makers to do something with the art form you couldn’t better do on television. That’s why this is fun. You come and see it outdoors. You’re seeing in nature a live experience like a dance concert. You could never film this. It would be ridiculous! But I think it’s why opera audiences are growing and theater audiences are not. Because in opera, everybody accepts the fact it is totally crazy and not realistic and live. And you’ve got to be there, do you know what I mean?”
Incredible Shrinking Theatre
When asked whether she thought west coast theaters were contributing something distinctive to the national arts conversation or did New York still command center stage, Perloff was clear. “I left New York to go to A.C.T. in 1992. All these years later they still think I’m at the beach. I mean they have total disdain for California. Unless it’s Broadway-bound work. That’s been the value that I think has destroyed the regional theater in this country: try to make something a musical that’s going to go to Broadway. But in fact, that’s the least interesting part of the equation.”
The more interesting part came to light at the sixth annual Aspen Ideas Festival sponsored by The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic this past July, where Perloff and playwright John Guare headed a session called “What Does the Future of Live Theatre Look Like?” moderated by Dana Gioia, former National Endowment for the Arts chair. Current NEA chair Rocco Landesman attended as an audience member and posed this question to Perloff, “What’s happened to the resident theatre movement in the US?”
He went on to explain that, “America’s national theatre is really its collection of regional theatres across the country. When it was started, largely by the Ford Foundation, you had these mythic artistic directors like Joe Papp, Tyrone Guthrie, Zelda Fichandler, Gordon Davidson, Bob Brustein, etc. Now many of these theatres are run by their managing directors and their boards. Subsidy was supposed to protect a theatre’s ability to be bold, to experiment, to have conservatories, to have repertory. Most of that has gone out the window.”
Reflecting on her answer back at the Getty, Perloff says, “The original idea of all these brilliant people who founded these theatres was: great theater throughout history has always been a company of actors doing great literature in a community. And we’ve just disbanded that. There are no acting companies anymore, except Ashland. It’s a total tragedy. The Guthrie’s gotten rid of theirs; Arena Stage has gotten rid of theirs, ART, etc. That’s where great theater came from. It’s not a coincidence. Moliere wrote everything for his company. Brecht wrote everything for his company. Sophocles wrote everything for a group of actors.
“This thing of ‘pick up’ theater where you cast a star and hope it works is a disaster. It’s such a disservice to the art form, it’s such a disservice to the actor and it’s a total disservice to the audience. We think we have to do it because it’s how you get people to come. I don’t believe that. I mean I just don’t believe it! A.C.T. is 1,000 seats in a relatively small town. We’ve managed all these years to somehow keep it going, keep it robust and have a great audience. And we never cast a celebrity, ever. So I think we’ve really abdicated in the American theater and now we’re sort of reaping the fruit of it.”
Perloff believes people making work outside New York should go back to basics and ask themselves, what is it they were trying to do to begin with? And do something that is germane and interesting to whatever community they live in. “Chekhov always said, the more particular it is, the more universal. If you make something that is really resonant for your own community it will ripple but it will also mean something to that place.
“Martha Lavey [Steppenwolf’s artistic director] has this great expression she calls McTheater, which is every company is doing the same three plays. Why should that be? The sensibility between Chicago and San Francisco is like two different worlds. That is a testosterone driven city that’s about narrative and muscle. San Francisco is about form and really fusion based. I do a lot of dance theater work, music theater work. It’s a very interdisciplinary city. That’s what makes it fun. Different things land in different communities in very different ways and you should be making work that’s resonant for the community you’re in.”
Then what advice does she give to artists and playwrights who have Orson Wellesian visions at a time when four character plays are the de facto standard for small to large venues? “That’s a hard one to battle because we’re in a terrible economy. All of us running theaters and running institutions are spending our lives on our hands and knees begging for resources. So I understand. But it isn’t a time for everybody to shrink. I think that would be a big mistake. I think the more we shrink, the more we shrink ourselves out of any kind of relevance.
“What we should do is to demand, is to say, ‘No, we actually are worthy of this. We are artists with big ideas, big visions and big training. We want a bigger canvas and we deserve a bigger canvas. We’re part of the city and this is what we need to do.’ Instead of always apologizing in the theater and saying, ‘That’s okay, we’ll do it with nothing. That’s all right, we’ll work for nothing. We’ll just do two characters.’ You know? We’ve done that for years. And we’re just going to shrink ourselves out of existence.”
Elektra, presented by J. Paul Getty Museum, opens Sept. 9; plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; through Oct. 2. Tickets: $38-$42. Getty Villa’s Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy, Pacific Palisades; 310.440.7300 or Getty.edu.
All production photos by Jeff Ellingson. © 2010 J. Paul Getty Trust