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Iphigenia

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

If you're presenting a new play as an interpretation or take-off on a classic one, shouldn't you have something new to say? If you don't, you run the risk of being unfairly compared to the original, a comparison seldom proving advantageous to authors. This is the case with P. Seth Bauer's Iphigenia at the Workshop Theatre Company.

If you're familiar with the original Euripides play on which Bauer based his script, you already know the plot of this one: King Agamemnon, desperate to get his troops to Troy to return the beauteous Helen (who may or may not have gone of her own free will), is stranded in Aulis because there is no wind to fill his ship's sails. The only solution is to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to God, much to the consternation of his wife, Clytemnestra.

Aside from updated language and fairly liberal doses of modern humor peppered throughout, Bauer's script adds little, if anything, to the original. It loses most of the heightened tone, and tries to reduce the God-sized emotions of the original down to more human proportions, with only limited success. But if this play is less dramatically viable and emotionally stirring than the original, Bauer and his director, Elysa Marden, present the unexceptional script with such flair and humor that it still works.

In their hands, Iphigenia becomes as much an examination of the Greek theatre form as it does a story in its own right, proving much more successful on those terms. Marden and Bauer, in an attempt to make the story more accessible, have incorporated a number of different storytelling methods to advance the story. Among them: A prologue in a highly declamatory faux-Greek style (complete with choreography and chorus recitations) that recaps the events leading up to the Trojan War; a ghostly visage of an impossibly tall and imposing religious figure; a series of masks, making the cast of eight seem like a cast of twenty; and two hilarious scenes played with sock puppets.

But though Achilles (Brian Christopher Homer) playing straight man to his sock puppet troops ("the Mighty Myrmidons") is funny, it also proves a bit unsettling, as it's not only completely stylistically different from everything else in the play, but the characters created for the sock puppets (by Mark Hofmaier, Katherine Freedman, and Greg Skura) seem more fully-rounded (and decidedly more entertaining) than their human counterparts.

It's not that the performers are bad. Some of them - such as Pauline Tully as a youthful but headstrong Iphigenia, Marinell Madden as a tensely subdued Clytemnestra, or Greg Skura as a duty-driven Menelaos - are fine in their roles. But few are able to really make the characters and situations come alive; the characters are so watered down, and the script so dangerously on the edge of being an unashamedly preachy anti-war tract, that they don't have a lot to work with.

But they - and thus the audience - must make do with what's present. This Iphigenia, unlike Euripides', won't go down in history as a great work, though it provides a pretty strong example of how a directors' hands can shape a so-so play into something watchable and interesting, if seldom much more. It presents an interesting question, though: Could any great Greek tragedy or comedy work entirely with a sock puppet cast? It's probably never been tried, but Bauer and Marden could probably find a way to make it play.

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Workshop Theater Company
Iphigenia
Through April 5
Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes with no intermission
The WorkShop, 312 West 36th Street West of 8th Avenue, Main Stage Theater
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 695-4173