"We are slaves to the people we rule," declares Agamemnon in Edward Einhorn's new adaptation of Euripides's "passion play" Iphigenia in Aulis, presented by Untitled Theater Company No. 61 at La Mama. The Greek general speaks true, but the persistent threat of mob action is only one of this play's avenues to relevance for audiences of any time or place – such as a Western democracy 2,400 years after Euripides set down the words in Ancient Greek.
Euripides's last extant play relates an episode in the endlessly fertile saga of the Trojan War, and is, to my mind, among the most personal and emotional works of ancient Greek drama. All of Hellas has suffered dishonor from the whisking away of Menelaus's wife, the lovely Helen, who has willingly gone off to Troy with Paris upon the latter's having won her as a prize for choosing Aphrodite as most beautiful of the goddesses. Now Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon have assembled the Greek forces (the famed "thousand ships") at the harbor at Aulis, ready to set sail, lay waste to Troy, and reclaim Helen. But there's no wind, and the prophet Calchas has declared that in order to appease Artemis and bring favorable winds, Agamemnon, as commander of the Greek forces, must sacrifice his eldest daughter Iphigenia.
After sending for Iphigenia under the pretense that he has arranged for her to marry Achilles, the Greeks' greatest warrior, a devastated Agamemnon has second thoughts, setting up a bitter conflict between the brothers. Upon Iphigenia's arrival with her mother, Klytemnestra, the murderous will of the restive army, burning to set sail, seems irresistible.
Among this production's merits is Einhorn's decision to stick with Euripides's narrative. Aside from an unneeded rearrangement of the opening scene, the production essentially trusts the great playwright's craft in marshaling the action. The actors, too, trust the story and the words, skillfully bringing out all the pathos and human drama, and this play has plenty of those. Michael Bertolini convincingly conveys the agonized conflict tearing Agamemnon apart, and Eric Emil Olesun is impressively impassioned as the shamed-into-fury but not insensitive Menelaus. Paul Murillo's somewhat wooden Achilles doesn't give Ivanna Cullinan's dignified Klytemnestra quite enough to work with, but both Cullinan and Laura Hartle (in the title role) acquit themselves handsomely. Hartle offers a splendid rainbow of reaction, from desperate begging to acceptance to noble idealism as she transforms from a sobbing child into a patriotic, red-gowned, masked creature striding towards her doom with head held high.