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A CurtainUp Review
The Greek tale has been pared down to basics: Euripides's heroine Iphigenia goes affectionately by "Iph," a 34-year-old single woman stuck in a dead-end job at Tauris. A Greek refugee suffering from post-war trauma (her Dad Agamemnon tried to kill her at Aulis), she finds her present circumstances a psychological nightmare. She works for the temperamental goddess (Artemis) and a brutal king (Thoas) who delight in human sacrifice. Just as her despair deepens, however, two mysterious visitors arrive on Tauris's shore who change her life.
The action opens with the goddess Artemis (David Greenspan) introducing us to Tauris, a primitive seaside spot on the northern Black Sea. Artemis takes great pains that the audience not confuse Tauris with Aulis, citing that Euripides wrote a very famous play called Iphigenia in Aulis.
This outlining of geo-political boundaries and drawing attention to the play itself become a motif of the evening. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Artemis will serve not only as a character but as a dramaturgical guide during the evening. And though not our protagonist, he will remain as a strong presence on stage. Whether he's atop his Olympian staircase, or circulating with the other characters, he's a personage commanding respect.
The main story begins when Iphigenia enters holding a stack of file folders and flanked by her assistants Sandra and Lydia. She is all business and coolly informs the audience of the political reality at Tauris: "If you're Greek, you will be detained and EXECUTED. It's policy. You will be sacrificed to the goddess Artemis." From that moment on, we understand that any Greek visitor to Tauris stands on the razor-edge of danger and it's only a matter of time before he, or she, is sacrificed to Artemis. To reinforce this threatening atmosphere, she instructs Sandra and Lydia to check everybody's ID.
Barall works outside the psychological box of domestic realism, and deftly illuminates the major themes of Greek drama (revenge, guilt, war, madness, and fate). Building her play on the skeleton of Iphigenia in Tauris, she broadly traces Euripides' narrative but takes many intentional liberties. The viewer gets the feeling of wearing a bifocal lens through which the ancient text and Barall's script are welded together — which will strike some as artful but annoy traditional Greek theater lovers as somewhat too simplistic.
Rescue Me marks her professional debut as a playwright. As an experienced actor and wife of the playwright Charles Mee, who is famous for his contemporary remaking of Greek plays, she may have a certain advantage here.
Perhaps anticipating that playgoers might get lost in the story, Barrall bypassed straightfoward story telling. Instead she devotes a segment of the evening to a Q & A session (including snacks) with a distinguished classical scholar (Professor Nancy Worman of Barnard College was the guest when I attended). To get the conversation rolling, Sandra and Lydia distributed sample questions to ticketholders. To wit: Did the Taurians really practice human scacrifice? How do you explain the obsession with human sacrifice in Greek drama? Audience members were invited to ask unscripted questions as well. Inevitably, each verbal exchange between the audience member and Worman added insight into some arcane ritual or custom of ancient Greece.
The production is punctuated with some superb video projections.— the most memorable one being some actual footage of O. J. Simpson in his white Ford Bronco SUV being pursued by police on Interstate 405 in Orange County. This re-enactment of recent American history is adroitly used to highlight the Taurians' slow-speed chase of Orestes and Pylades when they are trying to escape their execution in Tauris.
In the end Barall makes her point not with intellectual jargon but with irony and humor, which is likely to fall flat with the traditionalists in the audience. The post modernist story telling is greatly helped by some extremely talented actors. The role of Iphigenia is played with a tough sincerity by Jennifer Ikeda. David Greenspan brings his usual virtuosity to Artemis. Julian Barnett portrays Orestes with a suitably mad cunning, and Ryan King is convincing as his loyal friend and accomplice Pylades. Rounding out the cast is Leon Ingulsrud as the barbarian King Thoas, and Paco Tolson as the Herdsman; Oni Momifa Renee Brown and Katherine Partington play Sandra and Lydia, respectively.
As I've already noted, Rescue Me is not for purists. But downtown theater enthusiasts will enjoy this mash-up of Euripides' classic. It may not deliver the full emotional punch of the original, but it surely will stir up some critical debate.