How Big Is Your Chorus?

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

You'd think that something as tried and true as Greek tragedy was cut in stone. But watching Sophocles Elektra performed at the expansive outdoor amphitheater at the Getty Villa in Malibu, I was struck by the question: "what is Greek theater?" and, specifically, "what is a Greek chorus?"

In a nutshell, Elektra is the story of the daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon - the king and queen of Argos - and the murder of her dad by her mom and her mom's lover. The tricky thing is that most of the action unfolds not between Elektra and other characters but between Elektra and the chorus. So the chorus carries a lot of dramatic weight.

Now we often think of the chorus as large group singing the conscious of the characters - they're elders, or wise citizens, a jury, or the voice of reason.

The truth is we really know very little about how the Greek theater and Greek choruses actually functioned waaaaay back in the day. Much of what we do know is recorded on the kind of ancient pottery that makes up the Getty Villa's remarkable collection. But even here there isn't much about the chorus. The chorus might have been as large as 50 people . . . or as small as five. An intriguing and controversial theory is that the chorus functioned as an idealized audience, teaching us how to watch the tragedy. What's wonderful is - we don't know. Each modern production, each modern director has to answer the question.

Director Carey Perloff's take in the Getty's production is an intriguing blend of answers. In this Elektra, this chorus is comprised of three women - an actor, a singer and a cellist. While the cellist and the singer provide a musical backdrop for the evening, the real work of the chorus is done by a single actor and a powerful one at that: Olympia Dukakis. It's a modern and economical answer to the question - chorus as wise old actor. Rather than Elektra arguing with a chorus of women, she's arguing with one woman. Now, Olympia Dukakis is a formidable presence . . .but she's still not a crowd. And for some reason, a smaller chorus makes Elektra smaller. Rather than Elektra holding on to the murder of her father as a personal and political act against a sea of voices, we get something closer to the domestic.

At times, the Getty production suffers from this intimacy. The actors are dwarfed by the outdoor setting and the classical facade of the museum that serves as backdrop.

Sitting at the Getty, I was reminded of the beautiful trio of broom wielding women who played the chorus in another adaptation of Electra written by Luis Alfaro and performed at the Taper a few years ago. We got a sense of community from their presence, they helped define the world of the play. But even there, I longed for a larger chorus. What kind of Electra could stand up to a chorus of 20...or 50? Maybe in the modern age its time to take the Greek chorus and . . . super-size it?

"Elektra" plays at the Getty Villa through October 2. For info on the play text the word "curtain" to 69866.

What's your take on the chorus? Join the conversation at

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Sophocles' Elektra


Date: Thursdays–Saturdays, September 9–October 2; Previews September 2–4, 8pm

Location: Getty Villa, the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater

Admission: Tickets $42; students/seniors $38

Tickets will be released during the run. The best option is to call the Getty (310-440-7300) 48 hours before the performance.

Getty Villa - 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272


Banner image: Jeff Ellingson, © 2010 J. Paul Getty Trust