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A CurtainUp Review
The Iphigenia Cycle
By Les Gutman
The subject matter of these two rarely-staged plays spans about ten years in the life of the House of Atreus, and bridges the more popular story of this family, Electra (currently enjoying a much-heralded Broadway run a couple of blocks away, review linked below). It begins (at Aulis) with the horrific pronouncement that, in order to get his ships out of port and onward to Troy, Agamemnon (Jack Willis) must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia (Anne Dudek). It ends (in Tauris) with her reunion with her brother, Orestes (Taylor Price), after she learns that her mother, Clytemnestra (Ora Jones), has killed her father, and that Orestes has killed Clytemnestra in retaliation.
Like the nearby Electra, this production represents a contemporary updating of the classic Greek. But unlike Electra, which caused discomfort in some quarters because it stripped down the play to a shorter, more light-weight version and shifted the context itself to modern times, Nicholas Rudall's fine translation is very faithful to the original, and Joanne Akalaitis does not change the ancient era in which the play is set.
To look at this production, one might well be surprised by the latter statement. From a stark Day-Glo yellow tile floor rise two sections of steps, and nothing else. (For the second play, a temple facade is fashioned atop the steps from corrugated metal, and a wading pool appears in the tiles.) Women are stylishly costumed; the men appear either in business suits of various description or outrageously fanciful outfits. Sound effects are maritime industrial: clanging bells, pulsating rhythms and the rush of waves. But these adaptations do not attempt to alter the story. These are still ancient Greeks: in awe of the forces of the gods, bound by ghoulish rituals beyond our most bizarre imaginations.
What Akalaitis has undertaken is a recasting of the original story with a modern sensibility, but not an "update" of its sense. This is a distinction that is not without a difference. And in this difference, there is a lesson for the myriad productions we encounter each year that attempt to fit the square peg of a classic into a contemporary round hole. Akalaitis has carefully and skillfully created a more accessible work that does no violence to the integrity of the original.
Nowhere is the nature of Ms. Akalaitis's tinkering more obvious than in her treatment of the chorus. Instead of a hovering cloud of abstract lyricism, the chorus is, as it should be, the crowd. In Aulis, young women appear in black party dresses and colorful umbrellas effervescing at the prospect of all of those Greek soldiers cooling their heels in port. In Tauris, they have become hard-edged slaves -- the cleaning crew of the Temple of Artemis. They sing (beautifully, to exceptionally rich compositions by Bruce Odland), they dance, they move, they gesture, they recite; these six women define the show.
The most interesting character transition is the only one that appears in both plays, Iphigenia. Anne Dudek begins as a playful, adoring child (too close to a Valley Girl as she starts to emerge) who suddenly matures and assumes responsibility for her own sacrifice at the end of the first play. By the time we see her in Tauris, she has hardened into a black heroin-chic look, and spits her angry story into a microphone as if her words were buckshot. (Think Patti Smith or P.J. Harvey.) By this time, Dudek has assumed complete control of her character.
Ora Jones makes a strong impression as Clytemnestra, and, wisely, the role is not tampered with. Here we have the illumination of the character who will slay Agamemnon in Electra, and the action in Aulis certainly informs our understanding of that development, as it should. Agamemnon, the reluctant general, is a strange man, played perhaps too weakly here by Jack Willis.
In some of the other roles, Akalaitis has taken greater liberties. For the most part, this enlivens the play with jocularity, without undermining anything Euripides is trying to say. Thus, Achilles (Taylor Price) appears in preposterous metallic-pad armor over a short chiffon skirt, wielding a sledgehammer and acting as if he has perhaps hit himself in the head with it once or twice. Later, Price returns in a shredded suit as Orestes, suffering from a stammering palsy at the hands of the Furies. In both cases, the characterizations are apt, and well-rendered by Price. Similarly, Nicholas Kepros finds appropriate levity in the Old Man who serves as the loyal servant of the House of Atreus. Sillier, and less appropriate, are the impressions we get of Thoas (from a returning Jack Willis) and of two quite different messengers from Wilson Cain III.
This production will no doubt have its detractors, chief among them those who prefer their classics straight up and without a twist. And while it may shed no new light on its subject for students of the classics, this brash, lively, entertaining production may well turn on the light for others. I tend to straddle these two camps, and I enjoyed it greatly.