Review: Electrifying 'Electra' is a gift from Greece


Special to Newsday

4:03 PM EDT, October 11, 2007

So this is a Greek chorus: 15 pretty young women with dark hair dressed in white, singing hauntingly close harmonies and declaiming unison lines, circling the stage in sympathy or contrast with the leads.

American audiences don't typically see casts this large outside a high school auditorium. Nor do we typically get the chance to see actual Greeks performing a Greek tragedy, as they do in the National Theatre of Greece's touring production of Sophocles' "Electra," at City Center through Sunday.

There is also the small matter of Peter Stein, the long-renowned German director who has expertly marshaled the forces of this intrepid company, and who here makes his American theatrical debut.

These enticements alone make "Electra" a must-see for certain theatre junkies and culture vultures. The good news for the rest of us is that this "Electra," performed in contemporary Greek with supertitles, is as wrenchingly accessible, and as freshly strange and shocking, as today's headlines.

In the title role, Stefania Goulioti makes her entrance crawling from behind a dull silver panel at the back of Dionissis Fotopoulos' stark, expansive set. Like a slow-motion Hamlet, Electra is several years into a decidedly unhealthy mourning process over her father, Agamemnon, who was slain by her mother, Clytemnestra, and her new lover Aegisthus.

Goulioti plays her as a premature crone, bent over a straw-strewn stage with a tiny broom; she's like a witch of grief stirring the pot of her sorrows, with the chorus and a more compliant sister Chrysothemis (Kora Karvouni) as her codependent sob sisters.

Clytemnestra (Karyofyllia Karabeti), an altogether different brand of witchy woman, makes a properly grand entrance in a glowing palace doorway. Hips .aswivel, she struts onto the stage in a sumptuous green gown to taunt her daughter and to offer a powder-tossing prayer to Apollo.

Indeed, maybe it's the presence of the chorus or the uniform intensity of the performances, but this is a Greek tragedy in which the ritual and religious aspects have a particularly strong, and not entirely salubrious, presence. Both sides appeal heartily to the same gods, who apparently set them at each other's throats.

Though it takes its time getting there, "Electra" also ends up being remarkably suspenseful. The plot involves Orestes (Apostolis Totsikas) sneaking back into town after sending out false word of his death via a tutor (Yannis Fertis), who goes beyond the call of duty with a brilliantly detailed and chilling description of a grisly chariot accident.

After a tearful reunion with Electra, Orestes goes about the family vengeance business coolly, while his sister strips and bathes in a kind of sexual ecstasy as she hears her mother's screams. A final face-off with the unfortunate Aegisthus (Lazaros Georgakopoulos) is milked for all its indirection, suspicion and tension -- not a small feat in the midst of so much tragic inevitability.

This is typical of this production's achievement, which manages to find a startlingly wide range within tragedy's native minor key.

ELECTRA. Written by Sophocles. Directed by Peter Stein. Presented by the National Theatre of Greece. Through Sunday at City Center, 130 W. 56th St., Manhattan. For tickets call 212-581-1212. Seen Wednesday.