It hasn’t been long since Iphigenia in Aulis has been seen on a New York stage. Euripides’ tragedy about the events leading up to the Trojan Wars and the extraordinary saga of the Oresteia seems to have touched a particularly contemporary nerve; in 2007, the Polish Theatre Gardzienice presented an adaptation at La MaMa ETC.
Well, it’s back — and back at La MaMa ETC, too. Edward Einhorn’s new adaptation of Iphigenia in Aulis begins performances tomorrow, 14 February, and runs through 3 March. (There is some confusion about the title of the show; La MaMa lists it as Iphigenia at Aulis, while the production company lists it as Iphigenia in Aulis. Oh, those pesky prepositions.) According to the press release for the production:
Featuring music of downtown indie rocker Aldo Perez (from the band The Renaldo The Ensemble) and the work of graphic novelist Eric Shanower (author of the award-winning Age of Bronze series), Edward Einhorn’s new adaptation reexamines Euripides’ play about democracy versus ochlocracy (mob rule) and the role of religion in popular uprisings, subjects made particularly relevant by Arab Spring.
Masks by Jane Stein are both worn and “puppeteered” as a second self, separating the characters from their classic archetypes and revealing more basic human emotions beneath. Deliberately anachronistic, the production mixes the contemporary with the classical and uses pop iconography of comics to examine the timeless, philosophical elements of the myth.
Iphigenia in Aulis is a production of Untitled Theater Company #61, whose presentations of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and Havel’s Temptation I’ve enjoyed in the past; the Web page for the show is here, and tickets are now available through La MaMa’s page for the show here. True, Good Person of Szechwan is completely sold out, but don’t let that keep you from strolling to West 4th Street for a play later this month.
Below, my review of the 2007 Theatre Gardzienice production at La MaMa, originally published in October of that year. It also offers a few general notes on the play itself and its appeal to contemporary audiences.
Iphigenia at Aulis. Based on the play by Euripides. Text adapted and directed by Wlodzimierz Staniewski. Original music by Zygmunt Konieczny; adaptation of ancient Greek music by Maciej Rychly. Light design by Grzegorz Podbieglowski. Choreography by Julia Bui Ngoc. Costumes by Monika Onoszko. Sound by Maciej Znamierowski. With Mariusz Golaj (Agamemnon), Joanna Holcgreber, Marcin Mrowca, Karolina Cicha, Agnieszka Mendel, Anna Dabrowska, Charlie Cattrall (Benedict Hitchins) and Justyna Jary. In Polish, English and Greek (synopsis provided in program). Running time: 50 minutes.
Agamemnon, Menelaos and the Greek armies are stranded in Aulis at the beginning of the Trojan War; the gods will not send a wind to set them asail until the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia is made. That done, Calchas prophesies, the fleet will be swept along to Ilium and a certain victory. Agamemnon, against his will, sends for Iphigenia with word that, in Aulis, she will be married to Achilles. Iphigenia arrives, accompanied by her mother Clytemnestra. Agamemnon continues to balk, but the Greek armies, driven by bloodlust and visions of victory, demand that the sacrifice be made. And so it is; and the Greeks sail on to Ilium, and to a violent, devastating victory. The curse of the House of Atreus follows them all.
It isn’t Helen’s beauty that drives Menelaos and the Greeks to sacrifice and violence. Beauty is a quality inherent in an object, a person; it is essentially static, inactive, it does nothing on its own except to attract the attention and admiration of the subject. Desire for the possession of the object of that beauty, however, is dynamic, and it is desire, not beauty, that provides the basis for the Trojan Wars (as well as, for that matter, most Greek tragedy). Tragedy itself is a weaving of the threads of desire and sacrifice. In Euripides’ late Iphigenia at Aulis, first produced in the waning years of classical Greek tragedy, this weaving finds a dangerous center in Iphigenia. First, she is drawn to Aulis in expectation of the sacrifice of her virginity to Achilles; finally, she offers herself up as a bloody sacrifice of her life to the glory of Greece. Self-sacrifice is a form of desire fulfilled. This parallel makes the reading of Iphigenia at Aulis as an anti-war play extremely ambivalent. This ambivalence is a fatal fault of the otherwise spectacular and Dionysian Iphigenia at Aulis that the Gardzienice Theatre has brought to La MaMa ET.C for the next few weeks.
Directed and adapted by Wiodzimierz Staniewski and with an original score by Zygmunt Konieczny (and an interpretation of ancient Greek music by Maciej Rychly), the Gardzienice’s Iphigenia at Aulis is a ritual, a sacred rite, precise in its choreography and bodied language. Each gesture here is a carefully sculpted example of the research that Staniewski and his company have conducted into folk and ancient ritual and music. Dressed in loose, delicate robes by Monika Onoszko, the performers dance an oratorio of the play, evoking what the program notes call a “[restoration of] tragedy from the spirit of music.” Mariusz Golaj as Agamemnon, Joanna Holcgreber as Clytemnestra and especially Karolina Cicha as Iphigenia embody Staniewski’s style of ageless, rehearsed bodied actions, simultaneously precise and violent. Golaj, angrily torn between his status as Army commander and his role as loving father, is all rage and indecision, his long white hair whipping over his shoulders in the violence of his conflict. Cicha first appears as Iphigenia as a weak, pale maiden in a wheelchair, barely able to stand. She comes alive when she sees her falsely-intended fiance Achilles, innocent desire wakened; once wakened, it is tranferred to her recognition of her own status as sacrificial object, just as willing to give her body to death as to Achilles. There is clear playfulness in her Dionysian madness, and the play ends in her sacrifice, a red scarf drawn around her neck as her father sharpens the sacrificial blade. (The coda, in which semi-nude women in a pale yellow half-light frenetically and rhythmically flail their upper bodies in paroxysms of terror and ecstasy, their bodies becoming moving light-sculptures in the near-dark, is breathtaking.)
The language of the performance is distributed among the English, Polish and Ancient Greek tongues. And woe for that English, for in it lies the main fault of the production. The anachronisms introduced into the play by the director and performer (for they don’t appear in the translation prepared for the production by Charles Walker) – a “fucking” here and there, and an entirely unnecessary “God bless America!” yelled by Golaj after describing the glory of the Greek people – serve not to bring the play into the 21st century and the days of the War in Iraq, but are jarring inconsistencies in the presentation of this myth of desire and sacrifice. What makes Clytemnestra’s cry of “Does no-one speak against this?” particularly heartrending is that Agamemnon and Achilles both have already done just that; they fear the wrath of the community, bloodthirsty and now obsessed by dreams of ultimate victory, should they fail to make the sacrifice.
That said, the Gardzienice’s Iphigenia in Aulis, presented here in its world premiere (the company, founded during the Soviet occupation of Poland in 1977, has been at La MaMa several times before), is a unique look at the reclamation of the tragedy from ancient Greek history, seeking with care and love and research to restore the tragic spirit to the contemporary world. There are those who don’t think tragedy is possible (or even desirable) in the 21st century, especially the deep, irregular rhythm of tragedy that was first explored by the ancient Greeks – the rhythm, though, is that of the human heartbeat. It is through the ignorance of this tragedy at the heart of human experience that wars, for Helen or for oil, continue to be waged. Iphigenia at Aulis is not anti-war, then, but an exploration and speaking, singing embodiment of whatever part of the human spirit – a spirit composed of desire, of dominance and submission, of masochism, of sacrifice, of both love and death – is expressed through it.