Iphigenia in Aulis

nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
February 16, 2013

Scenes from Euripides are interspersed with punk rock songs. Actors are dressed in ninja-inspired gis and carry a mask of their character on a staff or sword. The gods are invoked and sacrifices carried out while a drummer sits onstage, surrounded by amps, a fake cigarette dangling from his lips. Certainly a more eclectic, time-bending production of Iphigenia in Aulis would be difficult to imagine. While I cannot say I understand why every choice was made, there certainly is a lot going on to dig into, as well as some very fine performances and the most beautiful masks I have ever seen.

The Trojan War is about to commence; Helen has eloped with Paris leaving her husband Menelaus, who in turn calls on all of her former suitors (including his brother Agamemnon) to retrieve the wayward wife. We find all of the men (including Achilles and an unseen Odysseus) stuck on an island, unable to sail without wind. At the start of the play, a prophet has just informed Agamemnon that the only way for the Greeks to sail to war with Troy is if Agamemnon sacrifices his beloved daughter Iphigenia to Artemis. Agamemnon bemoans this fate, but out of filial duty to his brother, sends for his wife, Klytemnestra, and their daughter Iphigenia, using the pretense that Iphigenia will be wed to Achilles as a ruse to get them to come. Agamemnon regrets too late this decision and his effort to stop the sacrifice are spoiled – first by Menelaus and later by the quickly growing mob of unseen soldiers.

A chorus of three women in torn leggings and combat boots and leather jackets observe all of the action, sitting with Grecian grace during the action before turning into badass microphone wielding punk rockers between scenes. Aldo Perez’s very modern music, while loud and energetic, did not further my understanding of the story, but did convey a strong sense of angst and dissatisfaction from this simultaneously ancient and modern trio.

Director Edward Einhorn’s adaptation does justice to Euripides’ play, but does seem to call, from a modern vantage point, certain points from the ancient text into question. When Iphigenia earnestly declares, “the life of one man is worth the life of 10,000 women” it elicited, understandably, quite the audience response. At that moment I began to wonder if we were being encourage to watch the story unfold on multiple levels – both investing in the characters and also judging them for their sexism, violence, and archaic beliefs.

Jane Stein’s masks are created in a classical Greek style and are breathtakingly intricate and ornate. The decision to mount the masks on props led to a fascinating series of directorial choices from Einhorn. At times, characters addressed one another’s masks, at other times their human faces. The dichotomy of public and private self was very striking and a creative, informative reinvention.

Ivanna Cullinan is strong and vibrant as Klytemnestra, standing her ground from beginning to end in opposition of her daughter’s sacrifice. Paul Murillo is endearing as Achilles, conveying a sense of doglike loyalty in his very fresh take on the great hero. Eric Emil Oleson has sufficient gravitas as Menelaus and Michael Bertolini does an admirable job with a huge amount of text as the rather whiney Agamemnon. Lynn Berg is perfectly cast as Klytemnestra’s loyal old servant, donning a mask on his short walking stick. Laura Hartle is solid as Iphigenia, though it is intellectually hard to get behind her character’s change of heart. Jenny Lee Mitchell, as the leader of the chorus, beautifully shifts from classical chorus to intense rocker and brings a openness that invites us in, even when she is screaming into a microphone.

As a fan of Ancient Greek theatre, I naturally gravitated towards the unique use of masks and the actors’ handling of the characters. But Einhorn’s production is so big and eclectic that there is assuredly something in it for everyone.

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