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Iphigenia in Aulis

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kristen Sieh and Rob Campbell
Photo by Jody Christopherson

Disclaimer: I've never entirely understood why playwrights and directors so often feel a compelling need to mock around with the Greek classics. If such works not only so captivated audiences in their day that they won major prices at the Dionysia but that they've managed to endure through the remaining 2,500 years, that would suggest they contain something inherently worthy. Yet many productions treat them as though they're naturally ancient and dusty, and jazz them up in ways that obscure so much of what made them great in the first place. The most recent of these is Anne Washburn's spin on Iphigenia in Aulis, which is being presented as part of Classic Stage Company's later-summer Greek Festival.

Euripides's final play is typically a surging, moving testament to the theatre he helped, well, create, exploring combating notions of duty, honor, and family at the outset of the Trojan War. Agamemnon's fleet of ships is stranded in Aulis without wind, the victims of offending the goddess Artemis, and they'll only be able to set sail if the Greek hero sacrifices his daughter to the deity, in fierce spiritual rejection of his wife Clytemnestra (an act that would have major repercussions much later).

A warrior's anguish! A mother's rage! A daughter's selflessness and suppliance! There's even something of a romantic triangle, once Achilles and his battle for his bride-to-be is figured in. Typical of Greek drama, there are the searing speeches, soaring feelings, and a dazzling ending to be narrated by a spellbound attendant. What there is above all, however, is size: the sense that all of this matters from these earthly docks straight up to the apex of Mt. Olympus and that man and gods are forever entwined in a struggle for their very existence.

With her transadaptation (her term), Washburn does seem to understand this. There's a certain poetry in her writing that echoes with occasion, particularly in the doomed Iphigenia: "If I had the powers of Orpheus and my song / could magic stones to move and move men however / I pleased I would only open my lips and sing." And if her lyrics, for both the girl and the chorus, tend to have an overly "pop" feel ("Let Trojan hearts shatter / Let the Greek army sow / A righteous revenge / Yes, let the wind blow") they generally support her goal, as stated in the program, of bridging the gap between then and now.

Director Rachel Chavkin's work, on the other hand, does not. Chavkin has cooked away most of the nutrients and savor from Washburn's saga and left nothing but a muddled, watery broth. On a bland, military-outpost set by Arnulfo Maldonado that's been indifferently lit by Austin R. Smith, Chavkin lets loose the action without either containing it or channeling it in ways that might bring out the latent urgency. Actors mill about distractedly, substitute indicative gestures for personality (the most frequently used is a Hitler-heiling hand motion signaling "I'm going to tell you what happened offstage"), and appear to be waiting for the fog on some unseen moors to clear before... well, who knows.

Then there's the seven-member chorus, which is ostensibly of Greek women helplessly observing the stinging action around them, but is constituted in part by men in drag for no discernible reason. (This is at Washburn's request, though her edicts in the script mention nothing of the overacting male performers employed here). Their costumes (by Normandy Sherwood) are splashed with a blinding palette of colors, and resemble a cross between African and Caribbean fashions, while the songs they sing (by Shaun and Abigail Nessen Bengson, who wander among the "women" playing instruments) combine modern references and sounds into an uneasy mélange that only further separates the underlying drama from anything resembling common sense.

Sonya Tayeh's choreography for them is sometimes jazzy and sometimes tribal, and thus not prone to consistency. It fits in then, if uneasily, with the jumble of influences of Chavkin's conception, which ranges from children's theatre to Japanese bunraku, and fails to make an impression even in the rare instances it does make sense (most notably, the touching final stage picture of a young Orestes sailing into history). The overall effect is one of her searching for a way to get a spate of disparate elements to cohere, even though they've never had much trouble in any other production I've seen.

As for the actors, there are three who play the six lead roles, seldom convincingly. Rob Campbell finds a smidgen of authority but mostly a dazed attitude as Agamemnon, drastically overplaying his role as a pawn of more powerful forces, but his Agamemnon is even worse. Puffed of chest, stick-straight of arm, and bleating out a broad Brooklyn accent and (so help me) chewing gum, he's not a man you can take seriously, which subverts all the tension his presence is supposed to generate.

The women are marginally better. Amber Gray unleashes a hollowed-out fierceness as Clytemnestra, though the barely suppressed grin on her face while playing Agamemnon's brother, Menelaus, hints that even she's not sure she's pulling it off. And as Iphigenia, Kristen Sieh scores the 90-minute evening's single unquestionable win with the climactic speech about the young girl accepting eternal remembrance in exchange for her life, revealing the kind of sprawling scope everyone onstage should have all the time; too bad her other turns, as the various messengers, are cringe-inducing in their surface-level falsity.

As with everything here, I've no doubt this was intentional: Chavkin trying to illustrate through overstatement how ridiculous those hoary theatrical devices look today, perhaps? But to what end? She never gets as far as payoffs, with the messengers or anything else, choosing instead to leave the questions hanging in time much like the myriad ideas she floats and abandons over the course of the play. It's because of this that this Iphigenia in Aulis, despite its storied history, has much more trouble getting anywhere than does the Greek fleet.

Iphigenia in Aulis
Through September 27
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
Tickets and current performance schedule: OvationTix

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