Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The royal figures of this saga have been the subject of multiple plays by the ancient Greek dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. No one of their plays tells the entire family saga. Different titles present different parts of their story, some of the plays offering different versions of what "really" happened. Iphigenia and Other Daughters first appeared in Los Angeles in 1994 and had a 1995 Off-Broadway run in New York, but this is its appearance in the Twin Cities. In 2017, Ten Thousand Things Theater Company presented Euripides' Electra (not to be confused with Sophocles' Electra) and if you caught that, you saw the mid-section, which constitutes the largest section of the story McLaughlin has bound together.
McLaughlin's focus, as her title indicates, is on the children and the relationships they bear with their mother Clytemnestra, who is presented as a monstrous monarch. Iphigenia is Clytemnestra's eldest and favorite child. When her husband, Agamemnon, insults the goddess Artemis while heading off to fight the Trojan War, the deity intercedes against the Greeks, and will only relent if Agamemnon kills Iphigenia as a sacrifice. He does so, luring Iphigenia under the pretext that she is to marry the hero Achilles. Afterward, Clytemnestra is driven mad with grief and avenges the death of her beloved child by murdering Agamemnon. She sends her young son Orestes away, so that he will not know of the deed and grow up bent on avenging his father's death, and raises her two other daughters, Chrysothemis and Electra, with a stony heart.
Chrysothemis adopts a resolved, practical outlook, tending to the gardens and domestic tasks, expecting no love while harboring no hate. However, Electra, youngest of the three sisters, grows up seething with hate, living only to see their mother pay for their father's death with her life. Clytemnestra knows this, but has no fear; fact, she ridicules Electra for her crazed obsession. Only a man has the courage to murder the Queen, and the one man who might desire to do so, Orestes, is long gone, and presumed to be dead in the wars.
The subject may be a bit shrill, but McLaughlin punches out her points with nothing held back. She draws out the character of each sister to shine light on the different forces that drive them in life. Iphigenia is moved by the grace and romance that being well-married will bring, a place of prominence in society with nothing to perturb her equilibrium. Chrysothemis is led by a drive to survive, to keep her needs and desires simple, without challenging the fixed order of things. Electra is propelled by rage against all that is wrong, intent on burning down the moral rot that surrounds her. One daughter is churned by illusive hope, one by toxic despair, and one by keeping a dispassionate, even keel.
As for their mother, Clytemnestra is all love for her first born and all venom for her other children. She believed her fate was to give birth to one perfect child, and the reality that perfection is fractured among different children of differing natures, infuriates her. She does not portray a mother's unconditional love, but rather the insatiable demands of a creator who demands complete control over their creation.
Theatre Unbound has done a sterling job of staging this work. In addition to five leading roles, McLaughlin gives us a traditional Greek chorus, whose speeches create a context, especially for the first and final sections of the play. Their languid movements and ashen white faces suggest an eerie timelessness. They inhabit a set, designed by Kezia Germ and Keegan Mahin, that is deceptively lovely, deceptive in regard to the awful things said and done within it. A series of tree stumps, with flowers and grasses sprouting out around their bases, are scattered about the stage, suggesting a decimated stand of woods with new life fighting to be borne upon it. Golden-hued leafy vines hang from above. Upon this setting, Julia Carlis' lighting details the rise and fall of fear, rage, regret and submission.
Delta Rae Giordano is a fearsome presence as Clytemnestra, ruling imperiously over her domain, and swallowing any hint of fear, as in sneering at Electra's threats against her, "You'll die before me. You haven't got the strength for vengeance, and you're useless for anything else." Indeed, Samantha Joy Singh creates an Electra consumed by vengeance, and projects the awesome power of this horrible need, glowering at Chrysothemis, later describing her life as "Yapping on the ground for twenty years like a severed head."
Sierra Schermerhorn finds the calm core of Chrysothemis, allowing a shard of wistfulness to belie her determination to live an unremarkable life, as in telling Electra of their role as women, "We were never part of history, women. Everything important that was going to happen has already happened, long ago." As Iphigenia, Nissa Norland conveys the vanity and cluelessness of one who was always made to believe they mattered above all, not lacking in intelligence, but unable to put it to use beyond the narrow range of her vision, as discovering Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon to avenge her death, remarking brightly, "I'm impressed. I didn't know I rated that level of vengeance." As Orestes, Henry Ellen Sansone gives a stirring portrait of a young man whose ability to kill has been spent by years of war, having to consider killing once more, whatever it may cost.
The mythology behind the narrative in Iphigenia and Other Daughters may seem a stretch two and a half millennia after it was construed, though enough grizzly domestic crimes among family members appear in the news on a daily basis to suggest we have not progressed as much as we would like to believe. These daughter characters may in fact be universal and timeless elements that are part of the inheritance of human qualities passed on to daughtersand sons as wellfor time immemorial. McLaughlin's smart text and Bjork's muscular staging provide a fast-paced, accessible window into the ancient world that tells us something about how we continue to live our lives.
Theatre Unbound's Iphigenia and Other Daughters, through March 10, 2019, at the Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $18.00 - $22.00. For tickets and information, visit theatreunbound.com or call 612-721-1186.
Playwright: Ellen McLaughlin; Director: Amber Bjork; Scenic and Properties Design: Kezia Germ and Keegan Mahin; Costume Design: Alexandra Gould; Light Design: Julia Carlis; Technical Director: Jenny Moeller; Stage Manager: Meredith Jeanne Gillies.
Cast: Chloé Bell (Chorus), Brianna Belland (Chorus), Brighid Burkhalter (Chorus), Tessa Dahlgren (Chorus), Delta Rae Giordano (Clytemnestra), Bethany McHugh (Chorus), Nissa Norland (Iphigenia), Sierra Schermerhorn (Chrysothemis), Samantha Joy Singh (Electra), Henry Ellen Sansone (Orestes).