Perhaps no classical Greek playwright invites updating more readily than Euripides. In his plays the grandeur of archaic myth collides with the sordid, often hypocritical politics of democratic Athens, producing an irony that feels subversive and playful in a particularly modern way. Like all good postmodernists, Euripides provides multiple points of view, and this polytonality has led today’s critics to label him a humanist, pacifist feminist, rationalist, irrationalist, and nihilist.
It’s no surprise, then, that Euripides is a favorite of auteur directors like JoAnne Akalaitis, whose Iphigenia Cycle played at the Court Theatre seven years ago. She appeared to be throwing anything she wanted onstage–the hipper and more incongruous the better–as though she were embracing the playwright’s ironic spirit rather than trampling it underfoot. In Iphegenia in Kingman Chicago playwright Eric Appleton (who spends his days as technical director and scenic designer at Niles North High School) likewise modernizes the myth with a bewildering incongruity: it’s the mid-50s and the princess Iphegenia–whose father, Agamemnon, believes he must sacrifice her to the gods–has miraculously escaped to a diner in Kingman, Arizona. This quirky premise is not an Akalaitian ego trip, however, but a fitting Euripidean conceit. Like his ancient counterpart, Appleton reimagines the myth to address the concerns of his own generation.
When the seed of Iphegenia in Kingman began to germinate in Appleton’s imagination, he was running lights for a Milwaukee production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love. Night after night he watched emotionally paralyzed characters trying to escape from a seedy motel, the California desert rendering their anguish quasi-mythic. “I realized the only American myth we can hang on to is ‘the west,'” Appleton says. In Iphigenia Among the Taurians an ancient princess is rescued from the sacrificial altar by the goddess Artemis, then whisked off to the Taurians’ savage land, while Appleton’s Iphegenia finds refuge slinging hash in a desolate diner along Route 66. The chorus of slave women held captive along with Iphegenia by the good-hearted Taurian king are here dispirited waitresses frittering away their lives while the diner’s owner and cook, Thoas, tries to make something of his life. In the original, Iphegenia’s brother Orestes, who killed his mother, must recover a religious icon from Taurus with his faithful friend Pylades. In Appleton’s version Orestes has no quest but drives aimlessly with his buddy, trying to outrun his guilt.
In stark contrast to Euripides’ urgent drama, Appleton’s story is saturated with a desperate idleness. No one has anything to do but wait for his or her circumstances to change. Though things seem ready to blow–an ominous thunderstorm is approaching as the play opens–purposeful action seems beyond the characters’ reach. In this they resemble Americans, who may find it hard to imagine they play a meaningful role in keeping the universe on track–unlike ancient Athenian audiences, mostly members of the political class who felt closely tied to their government’s world-changing actions.
But the real power of Appleton’s play comes from its tantalizing indeterminacy. At first glance, it seems he wants us to swallow his far-fetched premise whole, accepting that these are heroic figures gulping coffee and burgers. He even makes them speak in verse–pentameter, no less–using highly elevated diction. But a careful reading of the script reveals another, wholly nonmythic story. Sometimes Appleton suggests that Agamemnon was no Argive king but a midwestern farmer defeated by the Oklahoma dust bowl; he went mad and believed God was telling him that killing his daughter would bring rain. To survive, Iphegenia needed no divine intervention but simply ran away, hitching rides until she ended up in Kingman. And Orestes isn’t hounded by the Furies but is suffering a psychotic break as the result of post-traumatic stress disorder. Then again, how can any of this be true? How many Oklahoma farmers speak in pentameter?
Appleton creates a mesmerizing puzzle with his own brand of polytonality. Myth and family drama mix but never merge–they remain at odds, as they do in Fool for Love. But where Shepard ultimately settled for family drama, diminishing his play, Appleton maintains the ambiguity throughout–one of the waitresses calls for a deus ex machina at the end to set everything right, while another insists that the gods abandoned humankind ages ago. We watch the events onstage and try to find a proper scope for them–which is precisely how we watch the highly digested news reports each night from around the globe, their potentially mythic parameters reduced to the dimensions of a TV miniseries.
Iphegenia in Kingman is an enormously challenging script to produce. Just finding seven actors who can handle Appleton’s dense verse is no small task. It’s not surprising that the tiny International Theatre of Chicago and its non-Equity cast struggle to bring the play into focus. Director Patrizia Acerra can’t find a way to weave the choral waitresses into the story emotionally, and their inexplicably coy postures give them no stakes in the action or outcome. Most of the cast flattens the verse by emoting indiscriminately, making much of the backstory incomprehensible. But on opening night the cluttered, disjointed first 20 minutes gave way to a rocky but compelling final hour. Perhaps the cast began to settle into the play. Perhaps the script’s gradual streamlining makes its second half more playable than its first. But by the final blackout, Appleton’s complex creation had exerted its hypnotic pull. The production’s greatest asset is Tasha Anne James, whose portrayal of Iphegenia is frank, mercurial, and as vibrant as her red hair. James delivers Appleton’s verse with consummate skill and finds just the right combination of fierce independence and wounded neediness to give her character tragic stature.
Some have criticized Appleton for not providing enough background on the Iphegenia myth. But he’s not after simple clarity. “I like to make an audience work,” he says. Sure, it helps to know Euripedes’ tragedy, but a playwright might reasonably expect his audience to have read it. Iphegenia in Kingman is enigmatic in the best sense, full of contradictions that illuminate the problem of understanding mythic events in a nonmythic, ordinary world.
When: Through 10/30: Fri 8 PM, Sat 5 and 8 PM, Sun 5 PM
Where: National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway