nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
March 18, 2005
What I liked best about Theodora Skipitares's almost-all-puppet adaptation of Euripides's classic script Iphigenia At Aulis is that she cuts a typically long Greek play down to an hour of powerful theatre. In that hour I saw a very moving play about self-sacrifice.
The play opens with Agamemnon, the King of Greece, hunting and killing a sacred deer, a deed for which he must pay the price later. We are then told the story of the kidnapping of Helen, the wife of Menelaus, brother to the King, by the Trojan Paris. All of Greece rises up to attack Troy for this insult. The goddess Artemis is angered by Agamemnon killing her sacred deer and demands that he sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia lest the Greek army meet with “unfavorable winds” in their assault on Troy. He declares that Iphigenia will marry Achilles, who is at the front awaiting battle, but actually intends to offer her as a sacrifice as soon as she arrives. He sends his servant ahead with a message containing his plans but the servant has the message forcibly taken from him and Agamemnon’s plans are revealed. His wife, Clytemnestra, elicits the help of Achilles to protect her daughter. So the play’s themes are revealed as Iphigenia’s fate hangs in the balance.
Skipitares’ adaptation holds a lot of resonance for me because she does such an excellent job of highlighting Iphigenia’s amazing transformation. In this way she makes all the deception and betrayal secondary to the selflessness and miraculous aspects of the story. She tells the story with equal parts of imagination, wit, and tragedy and she makes it all look and sound so beautiful.
Cecilia Schiller collaborates with Skipitares on some exquisite Bunraku style puppet designs. The puppeteers have the puppets strapped to their bodies and speak from behind them as if they were giant masks worn by ancient Greek actors. Skipitares draws from her actors an even, hyper-realistic style that never falls into the realm of presentational acting but rather emphasizes the pathos of the story.
Iphigenia is the only main character that is not entirely represented by a puppet. I imagine Skipitares does this to underscore her humanism by making her a real human. When Iphigenia first enters she is animating a small doll-like puppet as herself, but only half-heartedly; and halfway through the scene she tucks the puppet into her belt and plays the rest of the scene as a real human. We don’t see this small puppet again until the very end when there is a shadow puppet segment.
The actors do an excellent job breathing life into their respective puppets. John Benoit delivers the right amount of hubris and rumination as the King torn between his family and his country. Nicky Paraiso is quite funny as the servant/old man character whose face is his own but who has the body of a puppet. Sonja Perryman plays Iphigenia with a great deal of sincerity and she has a lovely singing voice as well. Chris Maresca is perfectly arrogant as Achilles, and Amanda Villalobos and Alissa Mello are enjoyable as the two flesh and blood chorus members among statuesque puppets. However, it is Carolyn Goelzer who turns in the most powerful performance as the strong and defiant wife and mother Clytemnestra. Her skillful puppet animation coupled with her talent as an actor makes her the most unforgettable performer in the show.
Coming in a close second is Yukio Tsuji, who provides the show with live percussion. His dexterity and delicate touch enhances Tim Schellenbaum’s fabulous musical score and punctuates the show with moving and oftentimes chilling sound. Finally, Peter Ksander’s lighting design supports the tragedy very well.
Greek tragedy can be cumbersome but Skipitares makes it accessible. The songs, the music, the acting, and the puppets make this production great for audiences of all ages. So, even though this play is set around the Trojan War, in this case you should not be afraid of Greeks bearing gifts.