‘Iphigenia in Aulis’ Review — Court Theatre Trades Tone for Accessibility in Euripidean Tragedy

Front: Stephanie Andrea Barron & Sandra Marquez; Back: Emjoy Gavino, Adrienne Walker, Kasey Alfonso, Tania Richard, Jeanne Arrigo, Tracy Walsh

To this day, Greek tragedies — as well as Shakespearean drama — occupy a good chunk of stage real estate, but rarely do we see them in their original form. A spectator of fifth century B.C. drama might have occupied one of 17,000 seats on the slope of the Acropolis, and Elizabethan audiences were accustomed to watching boys in gowns emote as female characters.

 

 

 

Today’s theatergoers are willing to sacrifice such authenticity not only for creature comforts, like the pleasingly portioned space Harry Weese designed for Court Theatre, but also for accessibility, usually in the form of modernized language but increasingly (and lamentably) in the form of comedy creep. These days it seems that the only way some audience members can demonstrate that they’re paying attention is by guffawing in spots — and some directors feel obligated to provide that comic relief at whatever the cost.

 

 

Michael Huftile as Menelaus

 

The cost can be steep. In Nicholas Rudall’s translation of Euripides“Iphigenia in Aulis,” directed by Charles Newell, those moments of tonal inconsistency can be jarring, distracting the audience from the important matters at hand and cheapening the timeless nature of the material. That’s a shame, because if the audience has the opportunity to make their own associations between the problems facing ancient Greeks and those we face today — and for much of this production the audience does have that opportunity — the topics resonate with a power that can’t be amped with laughs.

 

 

Christopher Donahue advises Mark L. Montgomery

 

First, that resonance. The setup for the play is that Agamemnon (Mark L. Montgomery), king of Mycenae, is commanded to kill his teenaged daughter Iphigenia (Stephanie Andrea Barron) as a sacrifice to the goddess Artemis, who will then free Agamemnon’s ships, stalled in Aulis, so that they can sail to war at Troy. That’s a situation that modern audiences are likely to choke on, that is, until they realize that unfortunately some parents today sacrifice their children to achieve much less.

 

 

Mark L. Montgomery, Sandra Marquez, Stephanie Andrea Barron

 

Similarly, Iphigenia’s eventual decision to willingly sacrifice her life for the scheme seems impossible to believe at first. But her thinking may be solid in the framework of her world: by giving up her life to allow the ships to sail, she will empower the Greek army to fight the Trojans and prevent the rapes and murders of hundreds of Greek women. Modern parallels are easy to find in adolescent Jihadists rigged for suicide bombings, on a less ominous note, in teenage girls with well-endowed egos who see themselves as saving the world from whatever they deem unfashionable.

 

 

Sandra Marquez as Clytemnestra

 

Finally there are the age-old questions of religion and fate vs. human will. “If there are no gods, why should we suffer so?” asks Clytemnestra, Iphigenia’s mother (Sandra Marquez in a nuanced performance that brings out all the full range of emotion informing the queen’s troubled relationship with her husband).

 

 

Jordan Brown, Christopher Donahue, Sandra Marquez

 

The clear language of Rudall’s translation allows these parallels to percolate nicely — until they are interrupted by inconsistencies of tone or staging. A couple of examples stand out. Agamemnon has summoned Clytemnestra to bring their daughter to Aulis for the stated purpose of marrying Achilles (Jordan Brown), but when the queen first encounters the young stud, she feels him up in a comic aside, dropping her regal dignity and acting nothing like a mother-in-law. Another jarring moment comes when Iphigenia, reconciled to the need to sacrifice herself and about to march off to her death, belts out a song Broadway-style.

 

 

The chorus: Tracy Walsh, Tania Richard, Emjoy Gavino, Kasey Alfonso, Adrienne Walker, Jeanne T. Arrigo

 

Perhaps the young Iphigenia has confused herself with the capable chorus: Kasey Alfonso, Jeanne T. Arrigo, Emjoy Gavino, Tania Richard, Adrienne Walker and Tracy Walsh. Like a true Greek chorus, they sing or speak their lines mostly in unison. Clad in the colors of the ocean (costume design by Jacqueline Firkins), they swirl through the ocher set by Scott Davis.

 

 

 

Iphigenia in Aulis

 

Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago; free garage parking during evening performances

 

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission

 

Through Dec. 7, 2014

 

Tickets $45–$65 at Court Theatre or (773) 753-4472

 

 

 

Photos: Michael Brosilow

 

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