By Larry Taylor/Garden Grove Journal
Tragedy is popular this summer at Southern California’s theaters. One of Shakespeare’s great tragedies,”King Lear” reigns now at the Garden Grove Shakespeare Festival in a highly-praised production. San Diego’s Globe Theater, likewise, has a successful production playing, as did the Los Angeles’ Antaeus Theater earlier.
Tragedy, as well as theater, in general, was first performed in ancient Greece. Since Fifth Century BC, the Greeks loved theater, and contests were held in their amphitheaters, many of which still exist. Prominent writers, particularly of tragedy, were Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
Each late summer, up the coast in Malibu, the Getty Villa museum revives this ancient form and presents Greek masterpieces in its amphitheater. An awe-inspiring production of Sophocles’ “Electra” can now be seen through Oct. 2.
This selection is appropriate because the action takes up where the Getty’s 2008 production of “Agamemnon.” ended. That play involved the return of King Agamemnon from the Trojan Wars. His wife, Queen Clytemnestra, feigns happiness at first sight, but underneath she is seething with anger.
She seeks revenge because her husband had sacrificed their daughter as dictated by the god Artemis. His fleet was bogged down for lack of wind on its journey on its way to Troy and he appealed to the gods who gave him this grim assignment.
That play charts her action on the way to murdering Agamemnon, setting off a chain of events which are dealt with in the current play, “Electra.” Laws of society and the gods dictate that the children revenge their father’s death. The actions follow siblings Electra’s and Orestes’ plot for vengeance. Overall, this work celebrates the human desire for justice and the costs exacted upon those who seek it.
Standing out is the verbal battle between Electra (Annie Purcell) and Clytemnestra (Pamela Reed). Both actresses are marvelous, daughter spewing out her rage and mother vehemently justifying her action. A commanding presence, as well, is screen and stage star Olympia Dukakis. She acts as a chorus, advising and soothing the seething Electra and generally commenting on the turbulent proceedings.
Other standouts, in this new translation by playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker and directed by Carey Perloff. are Manoel Felciano as Orestes and Jack Willis as his tutor. Orestes returns from banishment, becoming the linchpin for vengeance. Willis steals his big scene when he describes Orestes supposed death in a chariot race. His vivid description brings to mind the best of modern-day sports broadcasters.
Celebrated Greek philosopher Aristotle defined tragedy as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with…artistic ornament…with incidents arousing pity and fear…”
These plays, “Lear” and “Electra,” aptly fit this description.
Play goers should plan on getting to the Villa before the play’s 8 p.m. start to look at a special exhibition, The Art of Ancient Greek Theatre. The works on display are frequently the only surviving evidence of the performing arts in antiquity. A wide variety of objects — including sculptures, painted vases, and a rare fragmentary papyrus — bring to life the rich history of the era.
Much of the pieces are vases which give a vivid look at actors and productions. One has a depiction of Clytemnestra visiting Agamemnon’s tomb – a scene painted over 2500 years ago and replicated in the current staging.
For those attending the play, it’s also good to get to the villa in the afternoon to take in the regular collection. Over 1,200 works are on view in galleries. For tickets and information, (310) 440-7300 or www.getty.edu.