In ancient Greece, dramas were performed in amphitheaters open to the sky. So an outdoor venue like Summit Rock, the highest point in Central Park, is a good fit for Everyday Inferno Theatre Company‘s new “contemporary adaptation” of Euripides’ Iphigenia Among the Taurians.
The play (the title sometimes less accurately rendered as Iphigenia in Tauris) isn’t often produced around here. I’d never seen it before. Certainly it’s not as popular as, say, The Bacchae or Sophocles’ Antigone. Or Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, for that matter. This adaptation left me wondering why. It’s one of the best productions of ancient Greek drama I’ve seen in years.
The text of the adaptation strikes a smile-inducing, attention-grabbing, and surprisingly believable balance between literary authenticity – this is indeed Euripides’ Iphigenia in all its essentials – and contemporary informality and even snark. Led by Santoya Fields’s commanding performance in the title role, the cast rises stalwartly to the occasion. A capella arrangements of cleverly chosen modern-day songs by the likes of Radiohead, Florence and the Machine, and Phil Ochs comment warmly on the action, even if the wide-open outdoor spaces lead to occasional out-of-tuneness.
Importantly, director Anaïs Koivisto makes excellent use of the beautiful space. Summit Rock makes a lovely stage, but quite a wide one given the arrangement of the benches where the limited audience can sit, so it takes both crafty staging and strong vocal projection for a convincing production.
Just before the preview I attended, nature clapped along with a brief thunderstorm, soaking the cast members already assembled on stage and setting a literally electric tone for a performance that buzzed with energy despite the humidity.
The dramatic situation is typical of Greek legends in which seemingly arbitrary actions by the gods alter the courses of mortals’ lives. The goddess Artemis has whisked away young Iphigenia just as this daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra was about to be sacrificed by her father for favorable sailing winds. Believing the murder to have occurred, a furious Clytemnestra has killed her husband, only to be murdered in turn by their vengeful son Orestes. (Game of Thrones fans may detect echoes of this in the show’s incident of the sacrifice of Shireen Baratheon. Greek drama is always with us.)
As the action begins, Iphigenia has had a terrifying dream which she interprets to mean her beloved brother Orestes (an appropriately craggy performance by Mark Hawkins), whom she last saw as a baby, has died. Orestes, in turn, accompanied by his friend and future brother-in-law Pylades (an excellent Zac Pierce-Messick), and believing his sister long dead, has journeyed to distant Tauris (modern-day Crimea) on a mission from Apollo. He is to swipe its temple’s statue of Artemis and return it to Athens in order to escape the wrath of the Furies who have been hounding him. Little does he know that Artemis has set up Iphigenia against her will as the priestess here, in charge of ritually sacrificing any foreign men who turn up.
The play is a fine choice for the Everyday Inferno company, whose mission is to create “adventurous theatrical productions of new or rarely produced texts with a focus on telling women’s stories.” Women are central to the play and especially to this adaptation. Iphigenia and her fellow temple functionaries, all virginal Greek women under the thumb of King (here Queen) Thoas, have become, as Iphigenia puts it, “hard women” – “captive, ruined, frozen.” Yet even before they know the identities of the newly arrived young men, they’re fascinated and emotionally jarred by the visitors’ mistreatment by the locals. Frozen in time and space and the cycle of life, in their hearts these women are anything but. When Iphigenia and Orestes at last realize they are one another’s missing siblings, hope of rescue revives in all the Greek women, who rush to help Iphigenia plot an escape for the men and for herself, with a promise of future rescue for her comrades.
The tone shifts at the entrance of a comically conceived Thoas, realized by Malloree Hill’s broad turn which creeps gingerly into physical-comedy territory. Full of royal self-regard yet easily cozened by Iphigenia – Fields switches gears to show good comic timing here too – this queen is as hapless as the goddess Athena is firm. Yes, true to Greek-drama form, the deity turns up in person at the end to direct the sulky Thoas to let the Greeks go – not because the gods command it, says this version of Athena, but because it’s the right thing to do. “We are in an iron age now,” says this forward-looking goddess, where progress and peace won’t come from weapons alone.
Depite inserting this anachronistic message, the production doesn’t get fluffy – except in the too diffuse, feel-good closing musical number – or overly moralistic. It’s a thoughtful modern gloss on an ancient text that has enough space and sway to accommodate modern tastes and philosophies – even agnosticism! – and entertain modern audiences, while staying true to the legends that birthed it.
Everyday Inferno’s production of Iphigenia Among the Taurians is part of FringeAL FRESCO, FringeNYC’s series of free outdoor shows, a production of The Present Company. Don’t let vague threats of thunderstorms keep you away; Orestes and Pylades sure didn’t. Performances are free at 6:30 PM on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through August 21.