Modern audiences are lucky. In the old days, back in Ancient Greece, people sat for hours in a stadium listening to actors belt out lengthy monologs that all boiled down to “Hey everyone, something really interesting just happened offstage! Listen while I tell you about it for five minutes!” These melodramatic classics are the foundation of our modern theater, and our snappy dialog wouldn’t exist without these primitive ancestors. The Greek classics deserve to be produced so that new generations can be aware of them as something other than textbooks from college, but making the ancient style of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides interesting for modern audiences is quite a challenge. That’s why Untitled Theater Company #61 and La Mama have polished up Iphigenia in Aulis with rock music, masks, and comic book art.
One of the reasons that these classics worked so well for their original audience is that the stories are all based on Greek mythology, and that the audience knows in advance how the story is supposed to end. This made it all the more tragic to see heroic characters charging arrogantly to their own doom, or struggling hopelessly against the will of the Gods.
For those who aren’t familiar with the tale, Iphigenia (Played by Laura Hartle) is the daughter of Agamemnon (Michael Bertolini), and this play is set shortly before the Greek army sails off for the Trojan War. Poor doomed Iphigenia is unwittingly summoned by her own father so that he can sacrifice her to appease the gods and ensure Greece’s victory against the Trojans. Agamemnon struggles with what’s best for his daughter, versus what is best for his country and (Of course) what suits his own interest as a king.
The Trojan War was a full decade of pointless conflict in the middle east. Oh the quaint old days when a mere ten years of war was considered a long time!
This reference is not the only thing about the play that remains astonishingly timely for a play written over two thousand years ago. Iphigenia in Aulis deals with surprisingly universal topics like the dangers of “Mob Rule” in a democracy, the suffering of women during wartime, and most apropos of all – the willing to sacrifice oneself for a greater cause because of the command of some alleged prophet.
There are several modern influences to this interpretation of the play, most notably with the Greek Chorus. What to do with the Chorus is always a fun issue when an ancient Greek play is produced. The Director/ Adaptor, Edward Einhorn imagines his chorus as a trio of female rock stars. Between scenes, these three perform hard-rockin’ routines accompanied by a live band.
It’s a jarring transition from the classical speech in the rest of the play, but it helps hammer in a sense of youthful female rebellion that the play otherwise lacks (It is about a young woman who willingly allows herself to be killed in order to help a bunch of men chase down an unfaithful wife).
The show is of special interest to comic book nerds because the visual style is inspired by Age Of Bronze, a series of graphic novel by Eric Shanower. Shanower’s art is used to help illustrate the backstory (Literally) and his style influenced the masks used onstage.
These masks (By Jane Stein) are cleverly used to help define the characters while not obscuring the actors faces. Nobles like Agamemnon hold scepters topped by their mask, and these are sometimes held in front of their faces as if to say Agamemnon The King is merely a role played by Agamemnon The man.
The different writers depicted Agamemnon in various ways, though usually arrogant to a fault. In this production as adapted by Einhorn and played by Bertolini he suffers from a crippling uncertainty which makes him an unusual hero in a Greek tragedy.
Although this production is often hampered by the source material’s long-winded format and Euripides’ massive Deus Ex Machina, it does remind the audience just how universal these classic stories are, and it is does so with a striking modern flair.
Iphigenia in Aulis is playing now through March 3rd at La Mama on Manhattan’s lower East side.