nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
March 26, 2010
Rescue Me: A Postmodern Classic with Snacks by Michi Barall reconstructs Euripides's Iphigenia in Tauris with postmodern glee. Barall takes an obscure Greek play and brings it to life with wit, humor, and visual flair. It's a fitting showpiece for the final season at the Ohio Theater, the groundbreaking theatrical venue that's sadly closing on August 31.
Iphigenia in Tauris is the lesser-known of Euripides's "Iphigenia" plays. The more frequently performed Iphigenia at Aulis tells a horrifying story of human sacrifice. Iphigenia's father, King Agamemnon, is commanded by the goddess Artemis to sacrifice Iphigenia so that the Greeks will win the Trojan War. Iphigenia at Tauris tells quite a different tale. In this version, set nearly 20 years later than Aulis, Iphigenia has survived the sacrifice. Unknown to anyone, Artemis magically whisked her to remote Tauris, a peninsula on the northern edge Black Sea. Iphigenia now works as priestess in Artemis's temple. She prepares captured Greek men for sacrifice to the goddess. Then one day, Orestes, Iphigenia's long-lost baby brother, shows up...setting in motion a series of events that culminate in Orestes and Iphigenia's reunion...which could end in tragedy or triumph.
Don't know the back story? Don't worry. It's all explained. And when things reach an emotional crest, Iph (as Iphigenia is called here), calls for a break. This is not an intermission, but a spoof/celebration of scholarly talkbacks. For a few moments, the action stops. A scholar is pulled onstage. The actors lounge in the background, sipping Vitamin Water and looking casually out of character, while the stage manager paces back and forth on headset. On the night I saw it, the scholar was Nancy Worman, an actual professor of classics at Barnard College. She answered questions from the audience (fed to them on pieces of paper, all of which explain key themes of the play). Meanwhile, everyone ate goldfish crackers and cookies (this is where the play's subtitle "a postmodern classic with snacks" comes in).
This staged talkback is one example of the play's wry meta-theatricality. Artemis demands the stage manager speed up her cues; Iph accuses Artemis of not knowing her blocking. It makes everyone an observer and commentator as well as an actor. This theme suddenly hits home when Iph realizes "I've always done what I've been told to do" when faced with a new life or death dilemma. She finally sees her fatal passivity; now, to save her brother and herself, she must act.
The ensemble is excellent. Jennifer Ikeda makes Iph a quivering bundle of opposites: vulnerable yet tough, wry yet sentimental, wise yet naive. Julian Barnett brings quiet despair to the role of Orestes. As choreographer, Barnett has created a range of poignant and joyful dances. David Greenspan is a dryly imperious Artemis/Athena. He plays these female roles without drag, wearing a shiny black suit, evoking an MC for a celestial cabaret set on Mount Olympus. Oni Monifa Renee Brown and Katherine Partington move eloquently as the dancing priestesses, while Leon Ingulsrud winkingly evokes Elvis in his role of King Thoas. Ryan King makes a sympathetic Pylades, Orestes's best friend. Paco Tolson nearly steals the show with his rapidfire switches between personas and accents as a lackey, CNN anchor, a host of witnesses being interviewed on TV, and a herdsman complete with a puppet sheep.
Director and set designer Loy Arcenas handles all the postmodern pastiche with aplomb. Jokes land without being bludgeoned to death; pathos goes hand in hand with humor. Arcenas moves the characters gracefully through the long, narrow, Ohio space, transforming its limitations into virtues. The permanent pillars become an integral part of the setting, serving as the pillars of Artemis's temple. The long stage is nearly bare, other than two banks of LCD screens out front and a simple wooden staircase in the back. This allows for flowing movement as well as creates stunning tableaux. The screens project various scenic images evoking the Black Sea, pen and ink drawings of the key figures in Iph's story, and a collage of visual references ranging from Scooby Doo to telenovelas. The stairs allow Artemis to perch above the action, studying the interaction of foolish mortals. You get the sense that this is an ethereal place, an alternate reality.
With its integrated use of projected imagery, soundscape, and high and low culture, Rescue Me clearly acknowledges its avant-garde predecessors while looking forward to the theatrical future. Barall's play doesn't deconstruct a canonical text so much as reconstruct it, reshaping it into a funny, touching play imbued not only with political consciousness but genuine emotion. The play touches on feminist themes, condemns the "war on terror" and, at its heart, tells the story of a woman yearning to return home. It's a postmodern Greek tragedy/Wizard of Oz all rolled into one (with snacks).