War plays -- or, more rightly, anti-war plays -- are quite the rage these days. Iphigenia is P. Seth Bauer’s timely adaptation of Euripedes’s Iphigenia at Aulis, though it is not as blatantly anti-war as might be expected.
Iphigenia is taken from the mythos surrounding the Trojan War. Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, is wooed by all of Greece. Her father makes all her suitors swear an oath -- that should anything happen to Helen, they will all rise up together to slay the wrongdoer and destroy his city. Helen marries Menelaus, and they live happily for some years, until she meets Paris. They fall in love, and Paris spirits Helen away to his hometown of Troy. Menelaus, who cannot admit to himself that his wife betrayed him, believes instead that she has been kidnapped by barbarians. He gathers all the soldiers of Greece to declare war on Troy. But the Greek army is stalled at Aulis; there is no wind for their ships, and they cannot row all the way to Troy. A priest tells Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus, that he must sacrifice his oldest daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods. Only then will the wind return.
Heartbroken, Agamemnon sends for his daughter, telling her that she is to marry Achilles, the great warrior. His wife, Clytemnestra, accompanies the young and hopeful Iphigenia to Aulis. When Agamemnon reveals his plan, mother and daughter are horrified. Iphigenia must decide whether to offer herself to the gods or try to escape. Clytemnestra, full of rage, turns against her husband. Eventually, in the next set of myths, she will murder her husband and be murdered in turn by her children.
Although the play examines the motives for the war, it also examines the nature of faith and belief. Though the Greeks may be waging war on Troy for one woman, they choose to believe they are fighting for all of womankind; and though the gods may be capricious and cruel, they choose to believe there is a greater, hidden purpose to Iphigenia’s sacrifice. In a nicely modern touch, Bauer has made the play about God -- not gods, plural. This simple adaptation, highlighted with quiet flashes of humor, touches upon those deeper issues of war and faith, of patriotism and loyalty, managing to be both contemporary and authentically ancient at the same time. Intentionally or not, it is fraught with references to current events, though it pulls back from espousing one side over the other. "We don’t ask ourselves why we go to war, we ask ourselves why not," states a soldier. Another asks, "Do you know why you’re fighting this war?" only to be answered, "Yeah! … Because."
It is a masterful adaptation in its simplicity, and the simple staging highlighted this (with sets by Troy Hourie and lighting by Deborah Constantine). With a bare minimum of props and actors, ancient Greece was recreated on a red stage, hung with black-and-white costumes. The actors wore pseudo-timeless costumes (by Isabel Rubio), drawing from a multitude of time periods and cultures, and in an homage to Greek culture, wore unadorned but compelling masks. They also did some very effective and at times very funny puppet work.
The actors offered powerful portrayals, especially Pauline Tully as Iphigenia, Marinell Madden as Clytemnestra, and Mark Hofmaier as Agamemnon. Madden was truly chilling in the last moments of the play. Brian Christopher was an oddly funny Achilles. The rest of the cast -- Shamika Cotton, Carrie Edel, Katherine Freedman, Brian C. Homer, and Greg Skura -- played a variety of roles. Their ensemble work was adept, as was their puppetry. It all added up to a fairly gripping evening of theatre.
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Copyright 2003 Jenny Sandman