Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell…
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
September 8, 2006
Caridad Svich's "rave fable" with the very long title Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart is, not surprisingly, a riff on the classical story of Iphigenia, as told by Euripides. But in her adaptation, Svich seems to have tried to do too much and to grapple with too many ideas at once: create a modern context in the contemporary political quagmires of Latin America, tell more of Iphigenia's story before the moment of sacrifice, question the very nature of gods and myths in the modern world, look at the way media and politics intersect in contemporary culture, look at gender politics and sexual identity in a dictatorship, etc. The production is visually stunning and in its most successful moments really does wrench the myth into the present and show its darkest underbelly in an eerie and compelling way, but the whole thing never quite hangs together.
In Greek mythology, Iphigenia is the daughter of Agamemnon, brother-in-law to Helen of Troy; Agamemnon is trying to send his fleet into the battle over his brother's wife, but there is no wind. Told by a seer that the sacrifice of his daughter will bring the wind, Agamennon agonizes over the decision, but is persuaded by his brother to do as the seer suggests: sacrifice one woman to rescue another. Unable to tell his daughter the truth, Agamemnon tells Iphigenia to join him in Aulis, where she will be married to the warrior Achilles. When she learns the truth, Iphigenia resists, but then realizes that her death will help to win a larger war, and so consents to her own murder. In some versions of the myth, she dies; in others, she disappears from the altar, replaced by a deer or young bull.
Svich's version takes as its setting an unnamed Latin American military dictatorship, with a (probably rigged) election on the horizon. Iphigenia's father, General Adolfo, sees an opposition movement gaining strength, and craves the popularity boost that a personal tragedy might gain him. Iphigenia, meanwhile, wants only escape—from the eye of a cynical public and an even more cynical media (personified by an ever-present news anchor reporting and commenting on her actions on video), and from her dysfunctional family (drug-addicted mother, drug-addicted infant brother, and controlling, inappropriately sexual father). She escapes to a rave in a derelict aircraft hangar on the edge of the city, meeting along the way Violeta Imperial, a chicken vendor bearing the scars of her torture by the secret police for the crime of kissing a girl. Iphigenia sees pink crosses painted on the walls, with girls' names on them, and dreams of being those girls, not realizing that those are the names of factory workers who were found raped and murdered. Three spirits, the Fresa Girls (played by men), come when their names are spoken and haunt Iphigenia for the rest of the play.
At the rave, she meets Achilles, an androgynous, HIV-positive club singer, and has a night of angry, mixed-up passion with him. In a dream, she sees her own death, and when she leaves and returns home in the morning, she is not surprised to see a mercenary waiting for her. Her death becomes a media spectacle and promises to rescue her triumphant father's political career, as well as make 15-minute celebrities out of those who saw her at the rave.
There's a lot going on here—visually as well as conceptually, since much of the time there's video running that underscores or counterpoints what's happening on stage. (Several characters only appear on video—the newscaster, the Virtual MC (a sort of rave DJ), the infant Orestes.) Svich's poetic language adds another layer of density and complexity to the whole. I found many of the individual elements extraordinarily allusive and compelling: the virtual MC, a radio/video voice that serves as a sinister modern analogue to the Greek gods, all-knowing and heard everywhere; the highlighting of the way political families become pawns of the media; the omnipresence of the media, and the way their commentary becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, making the news anchor stand in for the seer in the original story; the moment when Iphigenia, unaware of the naiveté of her own privilege, idealizes the crosses marking the deaths of the Fresa Girls, the poorest of women. And some of the design elements are stunning, especially James Hunting's decaying industrial landscape of a set and Mike Riggs's lights.
But there was also a lot of stuff that didn't work, or didn't make sense, for me. I didn't feel that the character of Iphigenia was a strong enough center at the midst of this messy and ambitious maelstrom. Her shifts between naiveté and cynicism, attempts to wield power and attempts to evade it, rejection of her fate and embrace of it, never felt motivated, or consistent. And I never quite understood why she was escaping to a rave in particular, or her sexual/romantic encounter with Achilles—either in the context of the story or in conjunction with the original myth.
Part of the problem, I think, is that Iphigenia has some of the densest, most poetic language in the play, and all of the actors seemed more comfortable with the more concrete sections and had a hard time finding emotional registers in the poetry. And without feeling emotionally connected to Iphigenia (Brina Stinehelfer), I wasn't able to find a way to feel emotionally connected to the play, except in brief bursts—when Violeta (Susannah Melone) tells her story of torture, or in some of the Virtual MC's weirder rants.
Co-directors Ianthe Demos and Danny Bernardy find some beautiful, evocative images, juxtaposing the videos and the live action nicely (in which they are helped by the sprawling, multilevel set).
The end of the play is choppy in both the writing and the staging, with a number of sharply cut-off scenes, punctuated by blackouts, that feel like false endings. Neither Svich nor her directors are quite able to find a satisfying way to conclude. There's a lot to admire in Iphigenia..., but its virtues are in the pieces rather than the whole.