Iphigenia at Aulis
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 3, 2011
Phoenix Theatre Ensemble once again proves itself an invaluable resource to the New York City cultural community with a fine revival of Euripides's Iphigenia at Aulis that highlights an excellent American translation (from 1978, just published here) with which I was not familiar, and that features several thrilling performances, most notably company co-founder Elise Stone as Clytemnestra. I recommend the production to anyone interested in discovering (or rediscovering) why the classic Greek canon remains relevant in the 21st century. And I commend the expert, thorough job that director Amy Wagner and her colleagues at Phoenix have done in providing materials in the program about Euripides, the translators, and the play that really inform and augment the work on stage.
Iphigenia at Aulis tells the story of the very beginning of the Trojan War. Agamemnon, King of Mycenae/Argos and general in command of the Greek Army, waits in Aulis with his troops to sail to Troy, where they will avenge the abduction of Helen, wife of Agamemnon's brother Menelaos, by the Trojan prince Paris. But there is no wind, and so the army cannot set sail. An oracle advises Agamemnon that he must sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis, in order to win her favor; the gods will then provide the necessary wind to take the Greeks to Troy. Agamemnon decides to trick his wife, Clytemnestra, into sending Iphigenia to him by telling her that Iphigenia is to be married to the great warrior Achilles. Agamemnon then has a change of heart, and sends a messenger to tell Clytemnestra to ignore his previous communication. But that second message never gets sent, and Clytemnestra arrives at the army encampment with Iphigenia...and the inevitable tragedy that will eventually lead to many more (cf. The Oresteia) spins out.
W.S. Merwin and George E. Dimock, Jr. have crafted a translation that feels timeless and contemporary at the same time. (Merwin is currently Poet Laureate of the United States.) They emphasize layerings of two different kinds of all-too human behavior that result in the terrifying acts depicted in this play (and, by extension, the rest of the plays about the Trojan War and its aftermath). On one level, they show us an unquestioning acceptance of the glory of war: the chorus of Greek women, the soldiers, even Iphigenia herself all speak of making Greece "free" by destroying the "barbarians" of Troy who have insulted her by cuckolding one of their kings. It's the kind of stirring but ultimately empty rhetoric we still hear far too frequently these days. Merwin and Dimock use words like "salvation" and "virgin" to help us realize the linkage between what Agamemnon and his collaborators are up to in this play and, say, the men who devised the Crusades two millennia later.
The second level is all about self-interest. Achilles is furious with Agamemnon not for wanting to sacrifice his daughter but for using him (Achilles) as bait without permission. Clytemnestra is fine with sacrificing someone's daughter to get the winds blowing—just not hers. And so it goes, throughout the play. I loved the immediacy with which Merwin and Dimock have invested the characters and their various agendas. There's a wonderful scene, for example, where Clytemnestra quizzes Agamemnon about her prospective son-in-law: Stone's delight, as she learns her daughter will be marrying into a family of heroes and immortals, is subtle yet palpable.
Amy Wagner's direction of the play—on a striking, spare set by Maruti Evans, who also designed the exquisite lighting—seeks to emphasize the ignoble, human sides of the characters. Stone's Clytemnestra and Josh Tyson's Achilles are splendidly selfish, flawed, and relatable; Brian A. Costello's Messenger (the leader of Clytemnestra's escort) is downright affable, his clueless self-assurance belying the momentous, terrible events he is abetting. Neither the Menelaos of John Lenartz nor the Agamemnon of Joseph J. Menino feels quite so human at this point; I'm hoping they'll loosen up just a bit to make their characters as deflatable as their colleagues'. Kelli Holsopple is lovely, simple, and unwaveringly childlike as Iphigenia. Lawrence Merritt plays Agamemnon's attendant, and Cheryl Cochran, Amy Fitts, and Laura Piquado comprise the Chorus.
The costumes by Suzanne Chesney only half-work for me. For the women, she's provided filmy, flowing, ageless robes and capes that suggest any location or time period. But the soldiers are garbed in elaborate European-style uniforms that suggest late 19th or early 20th century. I loved the timelessness of the women's costumes, and wished the men had the same benefit.
For this is a production that reminds us why classic theater is indeed classic, possessing important and fundamental truths about the human condition that are necessary to reflect upon from time to time. I am very glad to have seen Phoenix Theatre Ensemble's arresting new take on this 2500-year-old play. And I look forward to their upcoming productions of Agamemnon and Electra, which will carry the story of the Trojan War to its bitter conclusion.