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Carey Perloff Has an Elektra Complex

The acclaimed director talks about her new production of the classic Greek tragedy starring Olympia Dukakis, Annie Purcell, and Pamela Reed logo
Carey Perloff
In 1987, Carey Perloff directed Sophocles' tragedy Elektra in New York with Pamela Reed in the title role. Now, Perloff is directing Elektra again -- this time at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, with Reed playing Clytemnestra, Annie Purcell in the title role, Manoel Felciano as Orestes, and Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis as the Chorus. TheaterMania recently spoke to Perloff, who is also the artistic director of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, about this remarkable project.

THEATERMANIA: How did the Getty production come about?
CAREY PERLOFF: Archeology is my big love and my undergraduate degree is in ancient Greek and classics. So I got a phone call from the Getty Villa curators saying they're doing an exhibition on representations of tragedy in ancient art, and was I interested in doing a production in conjunction with that? I thought that was a fantastic idea. What we realized is that the most represented image in the exhibition, in terms of storytelling, was that gorgeous recognition scene when Elektra and Orestes finally see and know each other. So we decided to explore Elektra again so it would really resonate with the exhibition.

TM: How is this production different than the one in 1987?
CP: The first time I'd found a translation by the famous poet Ezra Pound. It was a very colloquial, kind of odd translation that was particular to its own history. Pound had written it when he was incarcerated in St. Elizabeth's, so much of it was about madness. This one is much truer to the actual Greek. Timberlake Wertenbaker is a remarkable playwright and translator. And she reads ancient Greek! She has huge emotional range and empathy, and there's a very complicated character journey going on that I think is much richer this time around. She's left a little of it in Greek, so you get the beautiful sound of the language and the ritual and the formal tone of it. But you also get that great muscular debate that goes on between characters. And the other big thing is that getting to do a Greek tragedy in a real Greek theater is to finally understand how the play was written.

TM: So you've done Elektra with both male and female translators. How do they differ?
CP: I think one reason Timberlake was drawn to this play is the richness of those female characters. It's very easy to translate or play Clytemnestra as a monster. But her daughter, Iphigenia, was murdered, and she has a really strong argument. If you actually give it to her, it makes the play much richer and more complex. That's why it's a tragedy: in a way, everybody's right and everybody's wrong.

Annie Purcell, Olympia Dukakis, and Pamela Reed in Elektra
(© 2010 J. Paul Getty Trust)
TM: What else do you particularly like about Timberlake's take on the play?
CP: She also said something very interesting to me. This is all interpretation, but there's a word in ancient Greek for "maiden" that you usually use for a virginal woman. This is not a word used about Elektra, and Timberlake felt that perhaps Elektra had been abused by Aegisthus, that she was no longer pure. That's one of the tragedies of the play. In her obsession about remembering the death of her father, Elektra has created a situation in which she is incapable of moving forward in her own life. Her protest is heroic, but it also destroys her. Is that worth it? What's the difference between indulgence and necessary protest? Where is it effective? When you stand out there every single day and protest, what happens? Is there value in that or is it a kind of madness? It feels very contemporary in that sense. Also, what's the nature of grief? Elektra has never been one of those people who hurts themselves so as not to forget, which is sort of both laudable and really destructive.
TM: What do you want audiences to come away with from this production?
CP: A sense that a life examined is a life well lived. That the question is, always, how should we behave? As human beings? As citizens? How should people be citizens in their own community? The Greeks invented the word "citizen." And they invented democracy. I want people to think about the big questions of their lives, and to look at their own behavior. And I want them to see that Elektra is an incredibly beautiful play that's born in the midst of real sorrow. It's a big emotional ride.

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