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A CurtainUp Review
Iphigeneia at Aulis
By David Lohrey
Despite our troubled times, one insists on one's right to go one's own way. So be it. Iphigeneia at Aulis by Euripides is not light fare and offers few laughs, so it would not be accurate to describe its unique charms as entertaining. Enriching, yes. Inspiring, perhaps. Moving, undoubtedly. Disturbing, perhaps. To my mind, it is timely not because it diverts but precisely because it does not. This play implicates the audience and asks: where does one's right of privacy end and one's civic duty begin? How much sacrifice has the State the right to ask of its citizens? Who gets to decide?
Euripides wrote marvelous parts for women. Medea is probably his best play, compact, powerful, relentless. Euripides wrote two plays about Iphigeneia, daughter of King Agamemnon of Mycenae and his wife, Queen Clytemnestra. There is this episode set in Aulis, the story of Iphigeneia's blood sacrifice, made by her father to the Gods on his promise to give up his most beautiful possession in exchange for safe passage to and military victory in Troy. The Gods choose Iphigeneia. The companion piece, Iphigenia in Tauris, tells how many years later Orestes, her brother, discovers his sister alive in a distant land. He learns how Iphigeneia had been saved at the alter by the Goddess Artemis who substituted for her the body of a deer, because she could not bear to see Iphigeneia slain. Once reunited, the ill-fated children begin their long journey home. Neither episode has the singular passion of Medea, nor the clarity and sense of inevitability offered by Sophocles in Oedipus. The first offers what would seem to be a tragic ending (Iphigeneia is killed, Agamemnon loses his beloved daughter, and Clytemnestra is left alone in her rage), while in the second, Athena brings an end to the family curse and finally frees Orestes from the revenge cycle that killed his parents.
This production has a lot going for it, beginning with the translation by W.S. Merwin and George E. Dimock, Jr. It is neither filled with contemporary slang nor elevated by purple prose. It is a simple, clear, non-idiomatic translation that captures well the original's intent. One is immediately struck by Craig Siebels' elegant but, again, simple set, which looks like a Japanese Zen garden. Set at a military camp on the coast, the design consists of a stark pebble-filled beach, racks of stored oars and the tents of the King and his entourage. The set, like the translation, is unpretentious. In fact, this is the key to the success of this production. There is no high concept intruding on the tale, no heavy-handed directorial vision, no imposed post-modern take on the ancient world to muddle and distort the original. There are no TV monitors, no 20th century army fatigues, no jarring juxtapositions. Robert Perry's lighting design goes a long way toward showing what subtlety means. This is an elegant, respectful production of a classic Greek tragedy. The text is left to speak for itself.
A fine cast represents the Pearl Theatre Company. Beginning with Agamemnon (Dan Daily) and his brother Menelaos (Michael Nichols), there seems to be an effort to domesticate these royals, which is in keeping with Euripides. Both are played as troubled, wounded men, not entirely in control of their own destinies, not entirely too sure of themselves.
The Old Man (Robert Hock) is very effective in his role of royal intermediary. Mr. Hock must stand with and against his royal betters and pulls it off. Actually, the entire supporting is unusually strong, including the two-character Chorus (Celeste Ciulla and Melissa Maxwell). They are occasionally too light-hearted for the proceedings, but it is possible to attribute this to youthful zeal. Scott Whitehurst is impressive as the Messenger, while Albert Jones' Achilles gives a nuanced performance, creating an air of purposeful yet hesitant resolve.
Clytemnestra (Carol Schultz) must defend her daughter and does so, revealing with ever-increasing rage her willingness to make her husband sorry for his misguided ways. Ms Schultz reveals hidden powers. And then there is sweet, innocent Iphigeneia, played here by Sue Jin Song, an actress of surprising strengths and assurance. If she were to take her performance one step further, she would incapacitate her audience.
This play, written over two thousand years ago, might seem a museum piece to some. For me, however, the robes and sandals and goblets do not speak of the past but echo the present. How much can a city ask of its citizens?
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