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20 Questions With Olympia Dukakis

On ‘Elektra,’ Greek tragedy, and her preferred role in the theatre (not running one).

Academy Award–winning actor Olympia Dukakas singlehandedly tackled the role of the Chorus in Sophocles’ Elektra at the Getty Villa near Malibu, Calif., in September, and the production has moved north to San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, where it runs through Nov. 18, under Carey Perloff’s direction. Between afternoon rehearsals, Dukakis talked to American Theatre about her history performing the Greeks and other matters.

You’ve played in several Greek tragedies, but this is your first Elektra, right?
I’ve never done this play before. Carey directed it 25 years ago at Classic Stage Company in New York with Pamela Reed, but I wasn’t in it. This is Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new translation, and she’s written it so that one person plays the Chorus, and that’s me. Carey and I did another play of hers, Hecuba, many years ago at Williamstown Theatre Festival, then brought it back to ACT. And I did Iphigeneia at Aulis at Williamstown when I was pregnant with my second child, my son Peter, writhing on the floor! I played Clytemnestra, and my husband Louis Zorich played Agamemnon.

What’s the best thing about playing grand-scale Greek tragedy?
The ideas! The language!

What’s the worst thing?
Standing for an hour and a half onstage! I keep telling Carey, “Find a place where we can sit down at some point.”

You’ve worked with Carey many times?
Oh, yes, in the Hecubas, we did a Gorky together, we did a new play together….

Are audiences on the East Coast and the West Coast very different?
They’re very enthusiastic out here about the Greeks. I don’t find that New York audiences are so enthusiastic, unless there are names in the show that they recognize. Folks in Boston are fond of the Greeks, too.

You ran the Whole Theatre in New Jersey for 17 years. Would you be an artistic director again?
No, I’m very comfortable with that stick out of my eye. I did it. As my husband said, “I did my turn in the barrel.” Now I try to be helpful to other people who run theatres.

Your cousin Michael was the Democratic presidential candidate in 1988. Are you watching the current race with enthusiasm?
Who cannot watch? But with trepidation more than enthusiasm! The money situation with Citizens United is terrifying, actually. The fact is, anything I might say about the election has been said 100 times.

Weren’t your parents on different sides of the political spectrum?
Mother was a Democrat, of course, but my father in his later years was a Republican, although he was totally supportive of Michael’s candidacy.

Do you watch Fox News?
From time to time—it’s important to know what everybody’s saying. I watched the entire Republican convention. I screamed and yelled, of course. But then I watch “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” afterwards so I feel like there’s somebody sane in the media.

You take a break from acting from time to time to direct. Which is more fun?
Acting! (Laughs.) But I do like hitting the lecture circuit, and I enjoy performing Rose [Martin Sherman’s one-person play about a Jewish Holocaust survivor]. I actually did Rose in Tel Aviv this past summer, and everyone came out to see it. The audiences there are wonderful, and the reviews were frankly over the moon!

If you were stranded on a desert island, what three things would you take with you?
Three things? A knife! I think I’d bring my children and my husband…no, I wouldn’t want us all stranded on an island. Better would be music and some book I’d love to read over and over, probably poetry.

What are you reading right now?
A lot of stuff. An interesting book called The Ancestor Syndrome by the French psychiatrist Anne Ancelin Schützenberger. Joining the Resistance by Carol Gilligan, about how young girls are culturized—very interesting and kind of painful to read. Also a thing called Sacred Images, about Native American pre-history.

What’s your favorite New York restaurant?
It’s a toss between the Noho Star and Five Points.

What’s next for you after Elektra?
I’m doing a small movie called Irene & Marie.

Complete this sentence: It’s not theatre unless…
…you’re really involved!

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