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court iphigenia in aulisIf you’ve been around these blog parts for years, you’d know I’ve outed myself as an inveterate lover of Greek tragedies years ago. One of the most indelible and enriching cultural experiences I’ve had this year (as well as within the past five years), was The Hypocrites’ All Our Tragic, the 12-hour adaptation of all 32 existing Greek plays staged earlier this summer which reinforced for me the fact that all the stories I love and admire right now, from my guilty pleasure How to Get Away with Murder (doesn’t the flawed Annaliese Keating have uhmm, buckets, of Antigone’s stubbornness and ferociousness?) to box-office sensation Gone Girl (isn’t Nick Dunne as clueless and isolated as Oedipus?) can trace their roots back to the dramatic convolutions and character motivations of the Greek tragedies.  (Full disclosure: I am a Board Member of The Hypocrites and have chosen not to write about the critically-acclaimed All Our Tragic because of my role with the theater). So if there’s a Greek classic playing somewhere in Chicago, for the most part I’m there faster than anyone can say The Furies.  So last week I was at Court Theatre for its production of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis in a new translation by its former Artistic Director Nicholas Rudall and directed by its current Artistic Director Charles Newell, set to kick-off a three-year cycle of Greek texts about the House of Atreus (Rudall’s new translations of Aeschylus’ Agammemnon and Sophocles’ Elektra will be staged in subsequent seasons).  Iphigenia in Aulis is intense and riveting with some stellar acting, so it was definitely worth the trek to Hyde Park for this Chicago northsider; however, I’m somewhat perplexed by some elements of Newell’s production which in my view dilutes some of Euripides’ powerful playwriting.

Iphigenia in Aulis lays the foundation for the tragic events that befall the Greek general Agamemnon, his wife Clytemnestra, and their children Elektra and Orestes, stories which come up again and again in many of the Greek texts that survive. And it’s quite the brutal, bloody foundation:  the Greek army is stuck in the port city of Aulis on its way to Troy to wage the Trojan War because there is no wind to propel their ships’ sails. The oracle Calcus tells Agamemnon that in order to please the goddess Artemis and get those winds blowing, he has to sacrifice his eldest daughter Iphigenia to the gods.  The heartbroken general summons Iphigenia to Aulis, accompanied by Clytemnestra who has no idea what he is planning to do to their child, under the pretext that she will be married off to the great Greek warrior Achilles. It’s a morbid, cruel premise, but Euripides packs  the play with so many insights and reflections that are still resonant to our contemporary times: the nature and quality of leadership (is Agamemnon’s murder of his child the capitulation of a weak, waffling leader to the animalistic power of his soldiers, ready to riot for being stuck in Aulis and not able to go to war? Or is it the selfless strength of truly nationalist leaders who put country before all); the sometimes uneasy and unequal relationship between spouses; the equally uneasy relationship between parents and adolescent children;  the impetuousness and misplaced idealism of youth (Iphigenia ultimately accepts her death partly because she thinks she’s helping Greece win back their honor).

Greek dramas are not meant to be viewed by an audience realistically (the Dionysian festivals these plays were originally written and staged for were drunken, bawdy bacchanalias) so stylization is key. But for me the stylization should also be engaging and believable. I like how Newell stages most of the action on a raised stage, creating distance from the audience and reinforcing that this is indeed just a play but with metaphorical representations about society and human behavior.  I think Scott Davis’ minimalist, broken-down industrial warehouse set design powerfully evokes the grimy and packed city of Aulis, while John Culbert’s moody lighting both heightens and grounds emotional moments. And there are several fantastic performances that effectively balance the line between stylized and honest: Sandra Delgado’s monumental Clytemnestra impressively traces the arc from excited mother of the bride to raging, betrayed wife bent on first preventing and then later avenging her daughter’s death (the seething, profoundly furious death stare she gives Mark L. Montgomery’s Agamemnon at the end of the play establishes without words the tragic outcome of the next play in the cycle). Also impressive are Christopher Donahue as Agamemnon’s anguished slave who reveals his plan to Clytemnestra, and Jordan Brown, in my opinion one of the most talented young actors currently working in Chicago, whose Achilles is ferocious and fearless in insisting to do what is right, which is to stop Iphigenia’s murder (and his sexy, inseam-about-to-pop costume is quite the number, sort of like a cross between Guardians of the Galaxy and Folsom Street Fair reveler).

But I’m not as sold on some other elements of the production and Newell’s directorial choices.  Montgomery, an actor I’ve long admired, is his usual watchable self as the man with the most hellish choice to make, but there is a certain coldness to his decision-making. I never truly felt the horror and heartbreak of Agamemnon’s decision (as the lovely Nina who accompanied me to the play noted, similar scenes in All Our Tragic felt so horrific you needed to turn away from the actors). Maybe because after the initial scene when Agamemnon emotionally justifies his decision to both the Old Man and his brother Menelaus (a somewhat overbaked Michael Huftile), Montgomery plays the rest of the character as cerebral and even-keeled.  I think Stephanie Andrea Barron (who just graduated from the DePaul Theater School) captures Iphigenia’s girlishness and immaturity but her transition to a determined virgin sacrifice feels a little too abrupt and unmotivated. And then there’s the matter of the six actor Chorus (which includes such towering talents as Tania Richard and Emjoy Gavino) who perform mostly at the audience level, away from the rest of the actors on the raised stage. Their acting, dancing, singing, and synched recitative is pure stylization and theatricality – they also feel so jarring and at times so manufactured that you are taken away from the world of the play and into a “what the heck are these women doing here?”  state of mind. I think part of it is the staging and blocking:  most of the time the Chorus feels like they rehearsed on their own and live in their own world, I would have preferred that Newell integrated them better into the action of the play. I think part of it is the performing; although all accomplished actors, as a group they never seem to plumb the depths of grief, pain, and anger that Marquez or Brown taps into. The emotional violence in this play is worse than the actual violence committed against Iphigenia, and the Chorus is important in getting that message across.

Iphigenia in Aulis is running at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., until December 7.

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