Friday, March 4, 2011

Off Off Broadway: Iphigenia at Aulis

Iphigenia at Aulis, the last play Euripides wrote, was first staged posthumously 2,400 years ago, a year after the playwright’s death. The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble has now selected that play, in a superb translation by W. S. Merwin and George E. Dimock, Jr., as the first work to stage in its planned three year celebration of ancient Greek drama. And we are delighted that it did: we saw the play yesterday and it is an excellent production of a wonderful classic, well-staged and professionally performed. It really deserves a longer run than it will be getting.

In the play, Helen, the wife of Menelaos, King of Sparta (John Lenartz), has run off to Troy with Paris, a Trojan prince. All of the kings and leaders of Greece are bound by oath to join Menelaos in a war against Troy to retrieve Helen. Agamemnon, Menelaos’ brother and King of Mycenae (Joseph J. Menino), has been appointed commander of the combined Greek forces but they are stuck at Aulis, on the Aegean Sea, unable to set sail for Troy, because there is no wind to fill the sails of their ships. Kalchas, a soothsayer, has suggested a solution: according to Kalchas, the goddess Artemis has withheld the winds and has demanded the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia (Kelli Holsopple) before she will allow Agamemnon and his troops to set sail for Troy.

Initially, Menelaos decides to accept Artemis’ terms and sacrifice his daughter. To achieve that end, he seeks to trick Iphigenia into joining him at Aulis by sending a message to Clytemnestra, his wife and Iphigenia’s mother (Elise Stone), informing her that he has arranged for the marriage of Iphigenia to Achilles, the greatest warrior in Greece (Josh Tyson). Agamemnon then changes his mind and sends a messenger to forestall Iphigenia’s arrival at Aulis, but it is too late; she has already arrived with her mother. For his part, Menelaos is just as vacillating: at first he is outraged that Agamemnon would consider sending Iphigenia back; he considers that a betrayal of Greece. But on further consideration, he avows that perhaps the retrieval of an unfaithful woman, Helen, does not justify the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s innocent daughter after all. Even Iphigenia, herself, changes her position, at first fearful and angry at the thought of being killed but ultimately looking upon it as her opportunity to do the noble thing in serving Greece.

This play can be appreciated on many levels. It is, for one thing, an early pacifist work, questioning the wisdom of going to war over one woman’s infidelity. On another level, it raises a variety of philosophical questions relating to the existence or non-existence of the gods, the legitimacy of soothsaying and fortune telling, motherhood as the overriding force in a woman’s life, and the relative freedom of slaves and masters. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, it delves into man’s psychological and behavioral ambivalences, rationalizations and hypocrisies.

The entire cast does a solid job, as we’ve come to expect of the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, but Elise Stone, as Clytemnestra, and John Lenartz as Menelaos are especially deserving of praise. The set is very simple and very effective: it is a transparent platform set above a sandy stage, allowing the audience to visualize the players on the beach at Aulis while conjuring up the concept of a netherworld or Hades beneath their feet. Indeed, my only negative reaction to the play related to the lighting: I thought that the lights were, literally, a glaring distraction that did not illuminate but detracted from the production. But that is a small criticism of an otherwise fine production.

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