Iphigenia at Aulis
nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
October 5, 2007
With an exciting combination of movement, music, and text on display, La MaMa brings to New York the acclaimed Polish avant-garde company Gardzienice's version of Iphigenia at Aulis, a mesmerizing and unique adaptation of this ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides.
Before attending, however, it might be wise to brush up on the story, which here switches from English to Polish to ancient Greek at a rapid pace and can be hard to follow at times. In short, Agamemnon—the commander of the Greek army getting ready to launch its attack on Troy—must sacrifice his eldest daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis in order to calm the storms that are preventing the fleet from setting sail. To accomplish this, Agamemnon dupes both his wife Clytemnestra and Iphigenia herself, who believes she is being brought to the fleet at Aulis in order to marry the Great Greek Hope, Achilles.
Helmed by director Wlodzimierz Staniewski, himself a former artistic collaborator with the near-legendary Polish theatre artist Jerzy Grotowski, Gardzienice's body of work is the result of an evolutionary process developed over many years and several productions that explores modern, classical, and folk traditions, and the result of such long-term and artistic exploration is striking. Gardzienice's ensemble is as tight and intuitively cohesive as any I've seen, and their physical work—a unique and skilled combination of dance and gesture—is particularly marvelous.
Zygmunt Konieczny's original music, which is sung by the ensemble in several captivating numbers, is a beautiful display of folk and choral traditions, and includes a wide range of vocal styles and sounds that evoke a tribal and primitive soundscape. Iphigenia at Aulis is also ripe with stunning stage pictures centered on a simple and effective set of moveable blocks and platforms, and the staging overall conjures up a feeling of a lonely tribe perched on a cliff, exposed and vulnerable to the gods and to nature around them. It is here that Agamemnon presides like a samurai warrior over an undulating chorus of drum-playing women with his wife, Clytemnestra. They are attended by a shrieking servant, his oily brother Menelaus, a sinewy and hot-tempered Achilles, and his naïve and trusting daughter, all of whom display their own unique physical and vocal characterizations.
But what makes this company even more exciting is the way text, movement, and music are used and combined. There are many multi-disciplinary companies that can bring these elements together in interesting ways, but with Gardzienice it's as though they were working on a more primal level: as though the disciplines were a seamless unity from the very beginning. Here the advantages of the company's extensive development process is in full display, with the cast seeming like a single theatrical organism that shares a richly textured and deeply layered theatrical language of movement and sound.
The piece is less successful at integrating its three languages into a satisfying whole, and Staniewski's text—which can be difficult to understand even when it's in English—is delivered so fast at times that it seems as if the performers can't wait to be rid of it. With the piece clocking in at less than an hour, such frenzied delivery doesn't entirely seem necessary. Where the piece also fails to land is when it makes its infrequent but direct jabs at contemporary political relevance, tying Agamemnon's royal power to that of the United States.
Such detached commentary sticks out strangely at odds with the overall concept and tone of this piece, which to me already evokes a deeper and unique resonance. There is something fascinatingly primordial about this production and this company's work, no doubt a result of its extensive research and exploration of its own culture's folk traditions. Most modern retellings of the ancient Greek tragedies draw parallels between their morals and mores and our own. Here, instead, one feels almost like an anthropologist traveling back in time to witness our own cultural origins, with the only link between them and us being the primitive reptilian brain of Western society that still exists in us somewhere underneath our more civilized and evolved cultural trappings. Iphigenia in Aulis is, after all, a tale of ritualized human sacrifice in the shadow of gods and natural forces that humanity cannot reason with or fully understand, and in many ways this production feels fittingly more like it could be the ancient pre-historic source material for Euripides's play, rather than an adaptation of his work written 2,500 years after his death.