She enters, all body language, wearing a tragic, toy mask. But, once removed, the mourning Zoe Wanamaker becomes Electra.
Her performance in the title-role of Sophocles' "Electra" was lavishly praised when given at the Donmar Warehouse in London, and once again, in a recast version of David Leveaux's original staging, when she repeated it at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J.
The advance word is justified - indeed, when faced with the actuality it seems almost niggardly. The 47-year-old, American-born Wanamaker really must now be regarded as the greatest British classic actress of her generation.
She opened in that Princeton production at the Ethel Barrymore Theater last night, and she is magnificent. This is the most ferocious, most driven, most terrifyingly inevitable performance I have ever witnessed in a Greek tragedy since I saw Laurence Olivier play Oedipus more than 50 years ago.
Of all those Greek tragedies, possibly Sophocles' "Electra" has the most contemporary immediacy - a woman grieving inconsolably over a murdered father and anxious for vengeance. As the director Leveaux is quick and pertinent to point out, this very image can find modern resonances in the Balkans, Ireland and the Middle East.
And the Sophocles version of this tale places firm emphasis on Electra and her quest for justice, soft-pedaling the motive of her adulterous mother Clytemnestra.
For although, in league with her lover Aegisthus, she had indeed murdered her husband, Agamemnon, he, in turn, had been guilty of the sacrificial slaying of their child, Electra's sister, Iphigenia. Sophocles, by contriving to subtly place the emphasis on Clytemnestra's lecherous sexuality, negates that mitigation.
So now Electra awaits the return from exile of her brother Orestes, whom she trusts will bring Clytemnestra and Aegisthus to bloody justice. What obviously adds to the play's immediacy is the fact that here, character is destiny. Unlike so many classic Greek heroes, these people are not evidently, like Oedipus and Jocasta, the playthings of the Gods.
The reality of the characters and their plight is carefully underlined by the design concept of Johan Engels, who places the play roughly in a shabby here and now, setting it down in what looks like an abandoned steel works; center stage.
Then there is the briskly, almost brusquely, idiomatic adaptation by the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness, who with some phrases, such as "bosom pal," "spin that yarn," or "the devil has robbed us blind," jars the proper tragic utterance, but on the whole adds to the play's essence of relevance.
Leveaux has staged this "Electra" with all the tension of a thriller - he has ruthlessly cut the Chorus of Mycenae down to three women, with only one speaker, played by a motherly and understanding Pat Carroll. But he has wonderfully maintained all the helter-skelter emotions of the Sophocles, with Electra's feelings hurtling up and crashing down, before she finally recognizes Orestes' return.
The performances around this unhappy House of Atreus are splendidly judged. Claire Bloom's Clytemnestra is superb in her scarlet cocktail dress, bedizened with costume jewelry, looking arrogant, beautiful, cold and sensual - Martha Graham herself was never better.
Michael Cumpsty's upright, resolute yet slightly troubled Orestes, Marin Hinkle's wavering Chrysothemis, Electra's sweet but fainthearted sister, and Stephen Spinella's fussy, grizzled old retainer, Orestes' savior and tutor, are all sharply focused - but it is not for nothing that play is called "Electra." She never leaves the stage - and she is the tragedy's tuning fork.
So Wanamaker takes command. With a coarse putty face, a clown-button of a nose and hair seemingly torn out at the roots, wearing a tattered dressing gown trailing in the dirt, she stomps around the stage clawing at raw emotion.
It could be grotesque - but the sheer animal pain of this woman marked by many sorrows is such that she shivers with a vitality which makes every snarl, every grimace, into a statement.
And when, after her mother's butchery she falls into a sobbing, laughing, histrionic madness that is on dire point of becoming Straussian opera in its overkill, she suddenly reaches out and, quite appallingly, licks her mother's blood off Orestes' murdering hand. It's horrific enough to make the audience gasp. But, my God, it's effective. It's Sophocles. It's Electra.
Finally - both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus slain - Wanamaker can replace that white, characterless mask. The tragedy is ended. The memory is indelible.
Leave it to a playwright who has been dead for 2,400 years to jolt Broadway out of its dramatic doldrums. Sophocles' ''Electra'' opened at the Barrymore Theater last night in a magnificent new production that represents soul-satisfying drama at its most passionately, intensely alive.
In the director David Leveaux's startling staging, the play is both a timeless family tragedy and a lurid tabloid crime story. The foul deeds of ''Electra'' may have been recorded nearly two and a half millenniums ago, but in this masterly modern-dress version, they are as raw as the lead item off the police blotter. The portrait of a family convulsed by violence and betrayal is so potent and harrowing, it leaves you dazed and weirdly giddy. A daughter plots murder, a mother is butchered, a son is up to his elbows in blood. And you couldn't be more delighted.
With the astounding Anglo-American actress Zoe Wanamaker in the title role, giving the proverbial performance of her career, this ''Electra'' is the most significant restaging of a classic on Broadway since a revisionist ''A Doll's House'' with Janet McTeer 20 months ago. It's a provocative evening that not only reacquaints you with the direct, unprocessed power of Greek drama but also provides a depth of pleasure you associate more frequently these days with great movies; you're swept along by the narrative, majestic in its directness and simplicity. If there is any justice in the theater world, every playgoer with a hankering for drama with some flesh on it -- no doubt about it, this is theater for meat-eaters -- will place an order for this full-course meal, served in 90 gripping minutes.
Thanks to a sleek and hypnotic text by Frank McGuinness, who also wrote the ''Doll's House'' adaptation, and the urgent, authoritative performances by a flawless ensemble that also includes Claire Bloom, Pat Carroll, Michael Cumpsty, Stephen Spinella, Daniel Oreskes and Marin Hinkle, Mr. Leveaux's ''Electra'' is a family fight for any and every time and place. Designed by Johan Engels to exist in some fantastic limbo between the classical and contemporary worlds -- the set encompasses both fragments of Greek columns and broken pieces of modern furniture -- the production erases the 2,400-year gap in the blink of a blackout. Everything Sophocles' antique characters feel, from Electra's inflammatory grief to Clytemnestra's frozen ire, can stir as well, it seems, in latter-day hearts, even if today we shrink from expressing our darker impulses so boldly.
Something quite wonderful happens when ancient words are conveyed with such brio. A Broadway audience is galvanized. How strange, and cathartic, it can be to listen as characters vent their lusts and fears and rages without any hint of self-consciousness. Greek drama doesn't go in much for small talk; while the characters in modern drama live in a universe of subtext, shading the meaning of everything they say, Sophocles' figures have a refreshing lack of regard for obfuscation. ''I want you to taste the bitterness of death'' is how Orestes, superbly played by Mr. Cumpsty, greets Aegisthus (the equally fine Daniel Oreskes), moments before slaughtering him.
Mr. Leveaux's production was unveiled last year at the Donmar Warehouse in London and won Ms. Wanamaker an Olivier Award (over such formidable competition as Dame Judi Dench in ''Amy's View,'' due on Broadway in the spring). After a brief run this fall at the McCarter Theater with its new American supporting cast, it arrived at the Barrymore for an eight-week run. Along the way, Mr. Leveaux, best known for his direction a few years back of an acclaimed ''Anna Christie'' at the Roundabout with Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson, has refined the production, making the climaxes sharper, improving the lighting effects and, it seems, helping the actors take bigger risks in coloring in the more schematic aspects of their characters' relationships. Electra's feelings for Orestes, for instance, are now more ambiguous. Upon his return from exile, she gives her brother a lingering kiss on the mouth. Seeing him again is a passionate relief for her; she gains strength in the revival of her homicidal hopes.
From its earliest incarnation, the power center of this production has been Ms. Wanamaker and her shattering Electra, roaming Mr. Leveaux's physically as well as psychically wrecked world in her murdered father's oversize coat. Her eyes puffy, her scalp dotted with red patches, as if she had been tearing her hair out in clumps, she is a figure of pitiless resolve, unable to purge her obliterating sorrow over the murder of her father, Agamemnon, at the hands of her mother, Clytemnestra (Ms. Bloom), and stepfather, Aegisthus.
''Pain, pain, pain, pain,'' Ms. Wanamaker declaims, the word shriveling in her throat like a dry cough, until it practically chokes her. The actress is endlessly inventive but never strident or showy. In spite of her tragic countenance, it's a lyrical performance; the music in her raspy, octave-climbing speaking voice never stops. Neither does her agitation. Electra has lost everything in the loss of her father: power, position, control over her destiny -- she is under a kind of house arrest -- and her powerlessness is expressed in a restless pacing of the stage. This space offers no comfort, no consolation.
Such a forceful actress needs aggressive sparring partners, and in the terrifyingly grand Ms. Bloom, she meets her match. Looking ravishing in a scarlet gown and voluminous red shawl, Ms. Bloom's Clytemnestra is vainly, haughtily feminine. This woman dresses to kill. In her fiery exchanges with Ms. Wanamaker, you get a vivid picture of a noblewoman enmeshed in her own desperate struggle to maintain her power. The portrayal unmasks Clytemnestra's maternal side as well; Ms. Bloom has a splendidly manipulative moment in reminding Electra that it was Agamemnon's sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia that prompted her own murderous revenge.
The counterbalance to Ms. Wanamaker's tumultuous encounters with Ms. Bloom occur in the more tender scenes with Ms. Hinkle, playing her flexible sister, Chrysothemis. The impressive Ms. Hinkle continues to grow in the role. Her stature is dictated by her softness. The actress has a delicate touch but stands her ground with Ms. Wanamaker; her pleas for conciliation have the ring of sisterly concern as much as self-preservation. No less substantial is Mr. Cumpsty's Greek statue of an Orestes. He embodies the heroic without ever seeming a stick figure. His reunion with Electra, masterminded by Stephen Spinella in his touching portrayal of Orestes' servant, is now the production's emotional centerpiece.
The performances work all the way down the line. Ms. Carroll, in peasant garb, has found her footing as the play's navigator, Chorus of Mycenae, intelligently asserting herself as the conscience of the piece, choosing moments to egg Electra on or to advise a more cautious tack. Mr. Oreskes, arriving late in the play and dressed in white linen, like a California businessman, lets us feel Aegisthus' sense of kingly prerogative at the precise moment that he realizes his life is about to end.
As befits the best of Greek tragedy, there's nothing frivolous in this production, and nothing overwrought. The brutal economy of the work comes to a stunning resolution in the play's perfect closing line, enunciated by Ms. Carroll. ''The deed,'' she declares, ''is done.'' A final moment, with the triumphant Ms. Wanamaker poised on a damaged table. Over her face, she places a Greek mask. Lights out.
Arriving with an echoing thunderclap that ends pre-curtain chatter with a collective gasp, David Leveaux's production of Sophocles' "Electra" finally gives Broadway audiences something substantial to sink their teeth into. With this compelling, starkly staged production, led by a sensational and literally bloodthirsty performance by Zoe Wanamaker, Greek tragedy triumphantly reclaims a place on Broadway, where more prosaic disasters have largely reigned this season.
The production comes to Gotham from London's tiny, towering Donmar Warehouse (which also gives us next week's theatrical event, "The Blue Room") by way of New Jersey, where it opened at the McCarter Theater in Princeton in September. Despite a lack of stage depth that slightly clutters the effect of its final, grim tableau, the show is more at home in Broadway's Ethel Barrymore theater than at the comparatively cavernous McCarter. Here it's easier to feel the throb of emotion behind this family's fierce squabble over vengeance and justice, and easier to recognize the terrible relevance it retains across a span of more than 2,000 years.
That currency is pointed up in both Frank McGuinness' robust, straightforward contemporary adaptation and Johan Engels' set, which scatters the detritus of several centuries across a dark post-industrial wasteland. A soft, endless drip of water onto a slab of marble symbolizes both the ever-repeating cycle of tragedy that the play describes and the torturous tedium of Electra's life since the day her father was murdered at the hands of her mother Clytemnestra and Clytemnestra's lover Aegisthus.
Although Electra repeatedly bemoans the grief that poisons her life, a feisty bitterness is the keynote of Wanamaker's bravura performance. "I know what I'm doing's wrong -- it goes against my nature," Electra says at one point with a quiet piteousness, but such is the ferociousness of Wanamaker's performance that you don't believe a word of it. In a brown greatcoat that envelops her like a shell, she scampers around the stage like an angry rodent forever chasing its tail, thirsting to exact vengeance for her father's murder.
Seasoning her venom with the singsong sarcasm she brings to some of McGuinness' blunter lines, Wanamaker gives a vocally baroque performance, full of hisses and rasps and girlish whispers edged with a disturbing viciousness. When her beloved brother, the presumed-dead Orestes, reveals himself to her, the ghost of a young girl passes briefly through Electra's ossified heart and blooms on Wanamaker's face, and the effect is chilling.
If Wanamaker sometimes tips into actorly excesses -- stagy register changes in the course of a single line of speech, a little too much writhing, audible gagging in the middle of Clytemnestra's main speech -- she's never less than riveting in her energy and inventiveness, even if it's sometimes the actress one is watching rather than the character.
Riveting, too, is the stately anguish of Claire Bloom's Clytemnestra. A blood-red gown sets her apart from the black-clad accusers that surround her, signifying not only her ultimate fate at the hands of her son Orestes but also the wholeness of a heart that can still feel both guilt and satisfaction over her murderous acts, love and hate for her children. Bloom reveals them all with a spellbinding directness. In this small but powerful role, she makes a magnificent return to the New York stage.
Leveaux has elegantly directed the production with an accent on stillness that sets Electra's frenzied energy in bold relief. The performances of Pat Carroll as the Chorus of Mycenae, Marin Hinkle as Electra's more accommodating sister Chysothemis, and Michael Cumpsty as Orestes are all quietly effective, with Cumpsty in particular having grown in expressiveness since the production opened in New Jersey.
But it's the showdown between a mother and daughter, and the two commanding and charismatic performers who inhabit them, that galvanizes the production in intriguing ways. Wanamaker's mannish Electra has sought to leave all femininity behind, for it's women's powerlessness that fires the acts of both mother and daughter -- Clytemnestra's anger at her inability to stop the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia, less cherished by Agamemnon than a son, and Electra's fruitless search for her own justice and a life apart from her hated captors.
Of course the tragedy lies in the inability of these two women to find any common ground, any universal notion of justice. They can only see their own truth, and it is this idea that still sears us with its relevance two millennia later. Ideas of justice are as myriad as the minds they can inhabit, and it's from this sad fact that many of the world's horrors, so pitiably, continue to flow.