Iphigenia in Aulis
Adapted and directed by Edward Einhorn
Music by Aldo Perez
Art by Eric Shanower
Sets and masks by Jane Stein
Costumes by Carla Gant
Lighting by Jeff Nash
Choreography by Patrice Miller
Vocal Coach: Henry Akona
Fight Choreography: Dan Zisson
At La MaMa’s First Floor Theatre
74 E 4th St, NYC
Feb 14 — Mar 3, 2013
Thursdays — Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sundays at 2:30pm
Iphigenia in Aulis is a study in pretext without principle. Nations and leaders lean on prescribed values like the characters in this ancient Greek drama lean on the staffs holding up ceremonial masks that project their larger- (yet less-) than-life official presence to the world. But both of these are often a consensual delusion — a dispiritingly unoriginal observation of mine that proves how fresh this play of Euripides remains.
The elopement of Helen with her lover Paris to Troy from her husband King Menelaus’s realm triggers an honor-war in which city-states pledged in a mutual support pact are obligated to overrun the offending territory. Menelaus’ brother King Agamemnon is in turn obligated to lead the expedition, and finds himself manipulated by a prophet (and then pressured by a restive army) into pledging his own daughter, Iphigenia, as a sacrifice to gain favor with the gods in battle.
The anguish this causes Agamemnon is a portrait of the blame that buffers our ethical decisions; the king feels at the mercy of greater powers and grand concepts that we can recognize as really the limits of his own moral imagination. And this distortion of private conscience by public piety and militarist imperative is renewably timely in our own era teetering on the ledge of theocracy and “generational” conflict.
But that’s not the only way in which the antique and modern collide in this production. The beautifully wrought, eerily impersonal masks which intervene between the characters’ feelings and their obligations are designed by Jane Stein from Age of Bronze graphic novelist Eric Shanower’s images, and the commenting chorus is transformed into a punky pair of power trios on instruments and collective vocals (composer Aldo Perez plus Matthew Brundrett and Mike Strauss as the band, and Jenny Lee Mitchell, Sandy York and Emily Clare Zempel to sing the unspeakable).
The latter, thought jarring by some viewers, is as disruptive as rock was once meant to be, and is perhaps the feature of the production most in tune with the combative rabble our “civilization”’s founding figures of legend really were.
The characters themselves are more high-minded, in debates which are compelling as drama and plain speech turned to insistent artistry by director Edward Einhorn’s translation. His treatment is a new standard text of language unadorned but not austere, the straightforward arguments of state and dialogues of moral dilemma almost entirely free of poetic ornament but elevated to distinguished oratory and elemental outcry by the external pressures and expressive necessities the characters face.
Those public and personal spheres clash in the conflict of Agamemnon and his Queen, Klytemnestra, who tries everything to counter her husband’s mad myopic plan. The compact between wife and husband in a decidedly pre-feminist culture is implicitly paralleled to the uneasy understanding between leader and citizenry at the points when Klytemnestra reminds him of her sexual deference in return for domestic peace, and when she insists (still thinking that Iphigenia has been called to the staging area for a wedding rather than a burial) that the home — and the family in it — are hers to direct and protect while the patriarch of the clan ranges the wider world. But this is an epoch of men who will destroy their own house to save someone else’s village.
The way the wretched of a society can be enlisted in the cause of their oppressors is portrayed with ghastly — which is to say almost unremarkable — inexorability as Iphigenia becomes convinced that Troy, if punished with the massacre to come, will forever forebear coming into “civilized” Greece and “taking its wives.” And so high principle ends up hinging entirely on possession, with the psychologically coerced consent of the dispossessed.
The message of disapproval for the paternal pattern of the society ours is said to be based on is a message still in transmission some 3000 years after these supposed events, and the last, laudatory lines about the nobility of Iphigenia’s sacrifice are delivered not even through the prescribed mood of the masks but the backs of standards held up by a heraldic chorus, between their faces and us — banners as blinders.
The vocal resonance, moral hollowness and unexplored depths of Michael Bertolini and Eric Emil Oleson as Agamemnon and Menelaus are frightfully magnetic; the emotional bravery of Ivanna Cullinan’s precarious balance of obliged social surface and embattled inner character is unforgettable; the burdened dignity and urgent humanity of Lynn Berg’s Old Servant, a man who seems literally stooped by the pressures both divine and royal upon his constricted frame, is bleakly moving; and the radiant decency and contained charisma of Paul Murillo as Achilles and the humanitarian conviction and emotional immediacy of Laura Hartle’s Iphigenia round out an essentially flawless ensemble.
The masks, accurate to the origins of Greek theatre and appropriate to our own age of social artifice and selected avatars, are discarded at moments of uncommon honesty and insistent feeling. This tragedy is a text we’ve been going through for as long as can be remembered, perhaps even inscribed in our very molecules over the repetition of millennia. But with collective knowledge and moral perception like we see the playwright, his interpreter, some of their characters and each of the cast attempt, perhaps we can at last go off-script and into a future that all of us can survive.