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Sophocles wrote his Electra during the final years of the Peloponnesian War, when Athens was as wrenched by news of atrocities and doubts about its moral fabric as America is today. The play puts a new spin on mythic material that Aeschylus used religiously and patriotically years before. Sophocles retells the story of Clytemnestra’s murder in a shockingly blunt and unheroic manner, aggressively urging deep national reflection on the value of unswerving vindictiveness. The German director Peter Stein, a sort of born-again fundamentalist of textual fidelity these days, turns out to be the perfect contemporary conduit for Sophocles’ warning.
Stein, working with a Greek cast from the National Theatre of Greece, clearly understands that there’s no need to rub anyone’s nose in topicality. The grim and hard-boiled action speaks for itself if presented clearly. And boy is it clear here. The prime challenge in producing this play is to be both honest and understanding about the rather unattractive emotions Sophocles depicts. The title character is a study in excess, overdoing grief, joy, rage, woe and every other outsized feeling that she loudly and repeatedly proclaims. It’s an impossible role, and Stefania Goulioti is superb in it, impressively finding variety that holds attention and human detail that keeps us from becoming coldly alienated. Apostolis Totsikas is also excellent as Orestes, the first actor I’ve seen make emotional sense of the scene when brother and sister are reunited but only one knows the other’s identity at first. And Karyofyllia Karabeti is unforgettable as Clytemnestra, splendidly vain and sexy in a plunging green gown. For whatever it’s worth, she also makes a gorgeously gory corpse. I particularly recommend this production to anyone who was puzzled (or enraged) by the deeply pointless production of this play directed by David Leveaux on Broadway nine years ago. If that’s the only Electra you’ve seen, you still haven’t seen the play, and now is your chance.