The Iphigenia Cycle

Court Theatre

By Justin Hayford

If you want to know how well a director understands classical Greek drama, keep an eye on the chorus. Don’t be suckered by the headliners’ big moments–the ill-fated father’s self-recriminating monologue, the duped wife’s angry rebuke, the chest-thumping general’s threats of insurrection, the doomed innocent’s plea for mercy. These speeches are kick lines from antiquity, crowd pleasers for today’s audiences trained to equate “serious” acting with inflated chests, furrowed brows, choked sobs, and orotund voices. Making a Greek tragedy look and sound important during these speeches is like falling off a log–and in JoAnne Akalaitis’s Iphigenia Cycle, the lead actors, with their inflated chests, furrowed brows, choked sobs, and orotund voices, fall off big, unmistakable logs every 20 seconds or so for the better part of three hours.

And the chorus? What can any director do to make a contemporary audience care about a crowd of people who speak largely in unison, for the most part providing the theatrical equivalent of cinematic background shots? In Euripides’ Iphigenia plays–Iphigenia at Aulis and Iphigenia in Taurus, here performed as Iphigenia parts one and two, although they were written in reverse chronological order several years apart–the problem of the chorus is a particularly thorny one, as they are present almost constantly. When not acting as a communal voice of conscience, they have the unruly habit of going off on lyrical tangents. They are the speed bumps, tollbooths, and roadblocks on Highway Euripides.

Like many contemporary American auteur directors, Akalaitis’s solution to the chorus problem–as well as just about every other problem the text presents–is rampant modernization: finding contemporary icons to resonate alongside the 2,000-year-old words. The approach can work wonders, as it did in Peter Sellars’s racially polarized The Merchant of Venice and, less successfully, in Robert Lepage’s high-tech deconstruction of Hamlet. And after all, if a piece of theater doesn’t speak to our moment in history but to the public we imagined ourselves to be in 1955 (as commercial theater has a habit of doing), it may as well be in a museum.

But there’s a fine line between modernization and trivialization, trivialization and obliteration. Lacking a controlling theatrical metaphor that might transform anachronisms into revelations, Akalaitis indulges a series of quirky, fleeting impulses in this Court Theatre production, as though avoiding stylistic or thematic coherence at all costs. Aulis is represented here by a massive, hastily constructed white stairway descending to a sickly puce tiled floor–it looks like the world’s biggest, emptiest locker room–and Akalaitis’s chorus are six young women of diverse racial and ethnic heritage who lounge about in skimpy black cocktail dresses wielding colorful umbrellas. Taurus, land of the prefab, is represented by a corrugated aluminum temple and holy wading pool, which bears an unfortunate resemblance to a miniature-golf hole; the chorus is done up in red and orange harnesses, corsets, straps, leggings, and tank tops. In both cases the stage pictures do little but muddy the water. If Aulis is supposed to be a hypermilitaristic society–witness Agamemnon’s knee-high combat boots, Achilles’ armored Mad Max getup, and Menelaus’s space-Nazi duds–then where do these fashion mavens on a South Beach holiday fit in? If the Taurus chorus are supposed to be Greek slaves ruled by the dim-witted King Thoas–he of the red zoot suit and demented-clown face paint–why do they dress like aging club kids trying to do a dichromatic Clockwork Orange thing?

Such opaque design choices could be forgiven if Akalaitis had given the chorus a coherent role in this high-stakes drama: King Agamemnon, Euripides’ portrait of political weaseldom par excellence, must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in order for the gods to give his becalmed fleet a breeze strong enough to carry it to Troy. This sends the royals–notably Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, and uncle Menelaus–into monumental tizzies. Eventually Iphigenia gives herself up in the name of Greece and misogyny (a man’s life is worth 10,000 women, she blissfully declares). But as Agamemnon’s knife enters her neck, the goddess Artemis whisks Iphigenia away, leaving a deer in her place, and hurries her off to the island of Taurus, where she’s given the nasty job of overseeing the sacrifice of any foreigner unlucky enough to wash up onshore.

Unfortunately, all the quirky choices in the world won’t give the chorus–or anyone else, for that matter–a meaningful dramatic investment in the proceedings. Instead, the six women perform like trained poodles running through a series of stunts. Depending on the direction of the wind, it seems, they dance languidly, make ambiguous hand signals, speak into microphones, move in slow motion, dart across the stage, toss their lines back and forth, twitch, or break into multipart harmony–that is, when they’re not sitting in a clump and pulling big faces like the chorus in a community-theater production of Oklahoma! None of these gimmicks illuminates the text, forwards the story, or makes a lick of sense, especially since each stunt typically appears as an isolated event. It doesn’t help that the chorus tend to speak with the berserk enthusiasm of Miss America contestants. It’s as if Akalaitis were on a mad quest to make them “interesting,” forgetting the one device that might do the trick: allowing the actors to mean what they say.

Such robust insincerity pervades these three overblown hours. All the nonchorus actors, from the tragic heroes to the functionary herdsmen, are encouraged to get really, really upset about anything and everything–and there are few characters more ridiculous in Greek tragedy than a messenger who works himself into a lather reliving the news he’s come to deliver. Of course, these plays are fueled by titanic passions: with the curse of Atreus on your head and a major war about to break out in your backyard, you’d be agitated too. But one wishes the actors had spent less time asking themselves what they’re supposed to be feeling and more time wondering what they should be doing.

This is a production in which hardly anyone ever thinks–strategizes, plans, maneuvers, manipulates–though such actions are precisely the ones Euripides exploits to move his plays forward, especially Iphigenia at Aulis. Instead we get people who wallow or holler, responding to every emotional tweak like two-legged raw nerves no matter what the moment, the scene, or the play demands. In one typical example from Iphigenia at Taurus, Iphigenia questions the stranger washed up on her shore–not knowing he’s her brother Orestes–hoping for some news of her homeland. As written, the scene is fraught with none-too-subtle suspense; will Iphigenia learn her brother’s identity in time to spare him? Euripides toys with his audience, giving Orestes half a dozen excuses for not disclosing his name.

Had Akalaitis approached the scene with a bit of restraint, the way Sellars did in his chilling Merchant of Venice courtroom scene, she might have drawn the audience in. And restraint seems appropriate given Iphigenia’s role as state priestess. But instead we’re bludgeoned with bathos as the two actors devote their energies to simulated spasms of emotion, focusing almost entirely on themselves rather than what they might need from each other. They pace back and forth, drop to their knees, crawl around the floor, and clutch each other desperately. To be fair, Orestes has to be a bit of an emotional mess, pursued by the Furies and all, although in this production you might mistake him for someone with Tourette’s syndrome and a bad stutter. Iphigenia is left without an urgent need to get important information from Orestes, and therefore the suspense that might electrify the scene vanishes.

Of course it’s difficult, if not impossible, for actors to know what they’re after when they’re left to run around the stage without direction or purpose. In this production, chances are good that an actor with an angry line will storm a few feet across the stage while delivering it and then stop–as if he would rather be angry over here. When Menelaus makes his first big speech, berating his brother Agamemnon for his political opportunism in happily agreeing to sacrifice his daughter, he runs up and down the stairway a half dozen times, apparently torn between trying to alter his brother’s murderous course and getting in a quick aerobic workout. And when Iphigenia pleads for her life before Agamemnon, she gets down on her knees, implores him for a minute or two, stops, leads him center stage, gets back on her knees, and continues.

Such highly artificial blocking can be used to great advantage. In fact, it’s one of Chicago auteur Mary Zimmerman’s trademarks; she has a genius for creating powerful moments through blatantly unrealistic gestures. But Zimmerman’s productions are consistent in their self-conscious presentational choices, and she adheres to the rules she sets up for herself. By contrast, this scene reveals a director who doesn’t understand her own language, the conventional language of psychological realism. When Iphigenia appears at the beginning of this scene she’s an emotional wreck, her expression of horror dissolving into barking sobs. She collapses to her knees twice before she even begins pleading with Agamemnon. Clearly we’re meant to believe in the emotional reality of her plight. But if the truth of the scene–like the truth of almost every scene–depends upon the full emotional commitment of the actor, why have Iphigenia take a break and cross to the center of the stage? Is she in need of better lighting? Does she think she’ll finally convince her father to spare her if she moves him ten feet to his right?

This blunder points up the fundamental problem with this production: its utter lack of internal logic. Akalaitis, like so many “hot” American directors committed to big stage pictures and high-energy performances (Rent’s Michael Greif springs to mind), tends to make choices that embellish the moment but rarely evolve into a coherent theatrical language. Whether you found Sellars’s Merchant of Venice compelling or infuriating, you had to respect the thoroughness and consistency of his choices. His boundaries were clear and rigid. That thoroughness creates a unified artistic sensibility, a lucid stage world, giving the actors a place to stake their faith and a base for their choices. Without it, the evening is up for grabs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Dan Rest.