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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Gripping Production of Iphigenia at Aulis

Also see Richard's reviews of A Number, Roulette and Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me

Iphigenia at Aulis
Craig W. Marker
San Jose Repertory Company is presenting the United States premiere of Don Taylor's adaptation of the Greek tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis. This was Euripides' final play and it is a gripping and horrifying vision of what war can do to a nation. This beautiful production has plenty of up to date reverberation from the current war in Iraq. It even looks like it could be set in a desert in the Middle Eastern country. Some characters are dressed in sand-colored army fatigues and the women dress in colorful modern day clothes that look like they are in Palm Beach. These costumes are designed by Anne Oliver.

Don Taylor has kept true to Euripides' speech; however, there is a modern tinge to the rhythm of the dialogue. This is particularly brought about by a superb performance by Craig Marker as Achilles. The Euripides tale has been cut to a two hour ten minute production with intermission.

The setting is modern but the tale is the same. King Agamemnon (Remi Sandi) is commander of the Greek Army waiting for the winds to rise so he and his troops can cross the Aegean to sack Troy. So far, the Greek fleet is trapped at the port of Aulis because of unfavorable winds. The prophet Calchas has prescribed the sacrifice of Agamemnon's young daughter Iphigenia (Sarah Nealis) to the gods for a favorable wind. The king is faced with the tragic dilemma of choosing between his beloved daughter and the success of the Trojan War.

Agamemnon's brother Menelaus (Andy Murray) talks him into sacrificing the daughter to the gods for the good of the army. Agamemnon therefore entices his daughter to Aulis on the pretext of a marriage with Achilles. Iphigenia arrives with the king's wife and her mother Clytemnestra (Stacy Ross), happy with the knowledge that she will be wed to the handsome and popular Achilles. However, that happiness soon turns to horror when both mother and daughter find out that the young girl will be sacrificed to the gods. Even Achilles, once he has heard of the plot, allies himself with the couple. However, this is a tragedy and we know how it will turn out.

As in all Greek tragedies, there is a chorus of women, here performed and spoken by the wonderful San Francisco Dance Brigade. They set the stage with vibrant dancing that is reminiscent of Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham. The dancing pulsates to the beating of large non-traditional Taiko drums. The group, led by Krissy Keefer, shows a lighter side when they appear as the greeters of Iphigenia and Clytemnestra at the port. The chorus is dressed like the cast of The Boy Friend and they do a fun and kicky chorus dance straight out of a Hollywood musical.

Iphigenia's cast give excellent performances. Remi Sandi (Pride and Prejudice and six years with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) as Agamemnon puts across his agonizing ambivalence of wanting to sacrifice his loving daughter. Andy Murray (many ACT productions) is powerful as Menelaus the husband who has lost his wife Helen to Paris. Even when Menelaus has second thoughts about the sacrifice, Murray gives a sterling performance.

Craig Marker (Bus Stop, Shakespeare in Hollywood, Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow) is exceptional in his portrayal of the young Achilles as a vain and shallow character. One can see he is in love with himself even when he speaks that "1000 women would love to sleep with me." He has a certain lilt to his speech that is pleasant to the ear. Sarah Nealis (Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby) is jaunty as Iphigenia, the young girl wanting to be married to the most famous jock in Greek history. When she realizes that she is to be sacrificed to the gods she becomes very heroic. Jarek Truszczynski (Polish Academy of Arts) as the old man and servant of Agamemnon has a vibrant voice in speaking the words of Euripides.

Stacy Ross (Hannah and Martin, Killer Joe) as Clytemnestra gives a galvanizing performance that is superb. Her acting, especially in the last scene, stirs the blood as she goes into extreme agony over the death of her daughter. It is a tour de force of great acting.

Kris Stone has designed a fantastic desert set that could be anywhere in the Middle East. There are shiny steel barrels that could contain oil. On the right side of the stage is a chrome Quonset hut that is bright and shining. In the back is a very large round structure that sometimes represents the moon and is where actors make entrances and exits. On the upper stage right are three large, modern wind power mills that one sees on the hills outside of Livermoor, California. Lighting by Lap-Chi Chu is excellent and reflects the moods of the play. Timothy Near's direction is well suited to the translation, even ignoring the present-day localizations.

Iphigenia at Aulis runs through May 28th at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. For tickets call 408-367-7255 or purchase on line at www.SJRep.com. The last production of the current season will be 2 Pianos, 4 Hands opening on June 10 and running through July 9th.


Photo: Pat Kirk


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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