The needs of the many…


Iphigenia at Aulis


Written by Euripides

Translation by Don Taylor

Directed by Jill Landaker

Presented by Highwire Theatre (

CSV Cultural Center, 107 Suffolk Street

Equity showcase (closes December 16, 2007)

Reviewed by Judd Hollander


The dangers of mob mentality and the question of how often we would go to war if our leaders had to sacrifice their own children beforehand: these issues are brought to the fore in Highwire Theatre Company's stellar production (the company's first) of Iphigenia at Aulis.


Written by Euripides and wonderfully translated by Don Taylor, the play is a massive character study examining what happens when people are caught up in, or become helpless victims of, a surge of public opinion so powerful one can only allow themselves to be swept in the current and move forward; fight it and be destroyed or stand aside and try to pick up the pieces of reason and sanity afterwards. There are clear links to attitudes in the United States post-9/11, but the circumstances could be easily applied to almost any country at almost any time in history.


The story takes place in the costal city of Aulis in ancient Greece at the onset of the Trojan War. Helen, considered to be the most beautiful woman in the world, has been abducted - some say seduced - by Paris and taken to Troy. Helen's husband Menelaus (Thomas Poarch) and the armies of Greece, some tens of thousands strong, led by King Agamemnon (David Ian Lee), brother to Menelaus, have gathered in Aulis with the intention to sail for Troy, retrieve Helen and, because that's what soldiers do, ransack Tory of their riches and women in retaliation for Paris' actions. However, the massive army has been stuck at Aulis for some time waiting for a fair wind to send them on their way. 


Consulting a prophet about the situation, it is revealed that only by the sacrifice of the King's daughter Iphigenia (Julia Davis) will the gods allow the fleet to leave. To that end, Agamemnon, a rather ambitious sort, has sent for his daughter and his wife Clytemnestra (Ninon Rogers) on the pretext of Iphigenia's being promised in marriage to the soldier Achilles (Eli James). While Agamemnon soon has a change of heart about the matter, as word of the prophecy spreads, the thousands of soldiers, all hungry for glory in battle and other spoils of war, begin to urge rather vocally, in voices that will not be denied, that Iphigenia's blood indeed be spilled. So does the population in general, who wants to teach the Trojans what happens when one of them abducts a Greek woman. (Never mind that many consider Helen to be a whore; she is still one of their own, and heritage apparently triumphs over virtue in this case.)


A very powerful piece of theatre, the production, which runs 90 minutes without an intermission, grabs the audience by the throat with its urgency and never lets go. It's interesting to note that all of the male characters are portrayed as either weak or scheming, while it's the women, albeit in subservient roles, who act with honor and a clear purpose.


Each of the characters in the piece come vividly to life thanks to a superlative cast who play off each other wonderfully and are helped immeasurably by very strong direction from Jill Landaker. Clad in a business suit, Poarch exudes a malevolent air and malicious motives, creating a perfect Menelaus. Presented to the world as wronged husband, he is actually a schemer and manipulator who wants his wife back not because they had a good marriage (Helen's purity is attacked numerous times) but because someone dared to take her from him. He also knows Agamemnon's weaknesses all too well, and like any good politician, is not afraid to exploit them to his own advantage. While Menelaus is only present in the early part of the play, with a brief appearance towards the end, his menacing presence is always felt.


Lee has the most difficult role in the piece, making Agamemnon, someone who would willingly sacrifice his daughter, a sympathetic figure. Not an easy thing to do, but Lee pulls it off nicely, giving the appearance of a leader thrust into situations beyond his control and who convinces himself he has no choice but to follow the masses. Agamemnon genuinely loves his daughter, but knows that by refusing to have her sacrificed, he will lose his position of power and quite possibly his life when the army, already on the verge of becoming a mob (and nicely played as virtual automatons at points) exact their vengeance on him for what they see as a betrayal.


In Clytemnestra, Rogers offers what modern audiences would probably consider to be the sole voice of sanity. A mother who sees absolutely no reason for the murder (in her mind, it's not a sacrifice) of her daughter and is not above doing anything she can (such as humiliating herself before strangers) in order to save Iphigenia's life. Rogers plays the role well, but is hamstrung by the fact that the character is helpless to do anything to alter events, thus limiting her role to pretty much histrionics. As Clytemnestra says, she is basically a queen "in name only."


James offers a refreshing and amusing take on Achilles, playing the characters as a bit of a foppish blowhard, with more style than substance, with a somewhat befuddled air about him. He also provides the only comic moments in the play. His character is one who really doesn't want to get involved in this situation (or probably any situation for that matter); rather, allowing others to make decisions for him. This is evident in his scene with Clytemnestra, first telling her exactly what she wants to hear (that he will save Iphigenia); then quickly (and amusingly) maneuvering the matter to where it is Clytemnestra who must try to save her child, while he remains safely on the sidelines. In another life, Achilles probably would have made a good politician.


The one character that doesn't completely ring true is that of Iphigenia. Davis is very good in the role, but a key transition - her sudden switch between frantically begging for her life and then enthusiastically accepting her death as a chance to become a symbol for Greece - is not all that believable. While her change of attitude is understandable within the context of the play, (what teenage girl, swept up in national pride, wouldn't want the chance to be remembered for all time as the savior of her country?), the way it is handled is not. Basically in one scene, we see her pleading with Agamemnon that she not be killed; she then leaves her father's side and, the next time she appears, is more than willing to accept her fate; her readiness to martyr herself for a cause only increases the awe and respect for her among the troops. Regardless of the text, the way these scenes are staged leaves one feeling as if something that occurs in-between is missing.


Other than this one misstep, the play and direction were quite strong. The latter, keeping the action moving nicely, the tension high and the stakes higher. The set by David Newell was basically a deserted theatrical backstage area, with various props, but the production values were so strong, one felt quite immersed in the action and time period indicated. The interesting use of fluorescent lighting by K.J. Hardy was also very good and the costumes by David Withrow, basically a hodge-podge of outfits from various periods, added to the production's timeless quality. The music used in the piece was also very enjoyable.


A play with a lot to say, Iphigenia at Aulis represents an excellent start for the Highwire Theatre, definitely a group to keep an eye on in the future.


Also in the cast are David Douglas, Tommy Dickie, Jason Griffith, Sarah Brill, Michelle O'Connor, Gilliam Visco and Lilian Matsuda.


Box Score:


Writing: 2

Directing: 2

Acting: 2

Sets: 2

Costumes: 2

Lighting/Sound: 2


Copyright 2007 by Judd Hollander


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