“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.
Lynn Berg (of Bouffon Glass Menajoree fame) makes a sympathetic Old Servant, and the cast members who play attendants deserve mention for their skillful paralleling of the lead characters’ movements while wielding exquisite mask-topped implements that represent the public faces of the main characters and hark back to the masked performances Euripides’s audiences would have seen. The visuals succeed all around, in fact – not just the masks and the sets (Jane Stein) but the unprepossessingly perfect costumes (Carla Gant), the subtle lighting (Jeff Nash), and the graphic art contributions from Eric Shanower, author of Age of Bronze, a graphic-novel retelling of the Trojan War.
Where Einhorn departs from a classic reading of the text is in rendering the speeches of the Chorus in a vulgar, profanity-laced mode, and sharpening the contrast between this and the elevated speech of the principals by setting it in the context of punk-rock songs sung by the three-woman Chorus accompanied by a trio of masked onstage musicians (including guitarist-composer Aldo Perez). I had mixed feelings about this, for while the songs are well performed and work pretty well in themselves, the pounding, shouting delivery makes the meaning of some of the lines hard to understand, which renders the place of the Chorus’s speeches in the unfolding narrative hard to understand as well.
However, since those lines mostly provide commentary, even if the musical numbers don’t fit in seamlessly the storytelling doesn’t suffer, and the numbers do provide entertaining breaks in the otherwise heavy content. (Although Bertolini, in particular, doesn’t fail to take sly advantage when the text provides an opportunity for a humorous moment.)
The overarching vision does well by Euripides’s great text. And that’s saying a lot; Euripides, Sophocles, and their ilk may have been foundational theatrical geniuses, but these plays aren’t easy to do convincingly today, and there’s always the temptation to modernize or dress them up inappropriately. Avoiding that, Untitled Theater has served up a satisfying Greek drama with an authentic feel. Iphigenia in Aulis runs through March 3 at La Mama‘s First Floor Theater.