IPHIGENIA IN AULIS Theater Review
The Greek tragedian Euripides’ rumination on war, Iphigenia in Aulis, is the Getty Villa’s annual outdoor classical theater production reviving a Greek classic at the Malibu amphitheater. Iphigenia was first performed posthumously in 405 BC at an Athens amphitheater with 20,000 seats. Iphigenia won ancient Greece’s equivalent of the Tony or Ovation Award at the city state’s Dionysia festival.
2017 theatergoers may find this 2,500 year old ur-drama’s discourse on war to be the most relevant, compelling thing about Euripides’ Greek tragedy.
Unfortunately, the Iphigenia production at the 500-ish seat outdoor Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater at the Getty Villa remains startlingly relevant. Iphigenia is set against the background of the Trojan War, which according to legend was triggered by Paris running off with the beautiful Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaus (Michael Huftile). His brother Agamemnon (Mark Montgomery) is the leader of the Greek forces that have assembled at Aulis to set sail with a formidable fleet to recapture Helen of Troy. However, the Greek god Artemis has conspired to prevent this from happening - unless Agamemnon commits an unspeakable act as a sacrifice to the gods.
Contemporary audiences may find resonance in today’s extreme weather and how it impacts on human interactions. Also of interest is the depiction of women and their relationship with men. Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra (Sandra Marquez) and daughter, the eponymous Iphigenia (Stephanie Andrea Barron), come to a growing realization as the true nature of the husband/father’s summoning to Aulis is revealed. This play’s plot may have taken place in antiquity but it still echoes the role of women in 2017 and the importance of consciousness raising. The interplay between spouses and the father-daughter relationship still speaks to us across the eons.
But above all, 2017 theatergoers may find this 2,500 year old ur-drama’s discourse on war to be the most relevant, compelling thing about Euripides’ Greek tragedy. The Trojan War lasted about 10 years, while the endless U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and the debacle in Iraq continue to unravel a decade and a half after Washington’s lunacy launched these star-crossed invasions. Meanwhile, the maniacal Trump regime persists in ape-like chest thumping, provoking the DPRK (North Korea) with unnecessary war games that only fuel Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions to defend itself from the Yankee colossus that had invaded the Korean peninsula in 1950. (Note to the Pentagon: When encounter a hive buzzing with angry bees, the worst thing to do is beat it with a stick.) The U.S. military empire, with nearly 800 bases around the world in 70 countries, is unrivaled in world history and something that Julius Caesar could only marvel at. And like the ancient Greeks and Romans, 21st century U.S. imperialists have a similar rationale for militarism as expressed in Iphigenia: “Greeks must rule over barbarians.” As if there’s anything “civilized” about war!
(Getty Villa ticket buyers caught and laughed out loud at a strikingly contemporary reference when Iphigenia’s dialogue observed: “a commander in chief must be blessed with intelligence.” Considering America’s founders’ preoccupation with checks and balances, divided government and the separation of powers, Washington, Jefferson, et al, must be spinning in their graves like whirling dervishes at the thought that a mentally ill tyrant like Trump has his finger on the nuclear button, unfettered by those pesky constitutional contrivances like the stipulation that Congress declares war. No monarch or monster ever had the power at their fingers that U.S. presidents have possessed since the advent of the Atomic Age.)
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Like most armed conflicts, the Trojan War did not have to be fought, and even the cuckolded Menelaus realizes this at one point. But the angst-ridden Agamemnon - appropriately depicted as agonizing by Montgomery - muses, “the yoke of fate lies heavy,” even upon the shoulders of the leader of the Greek coalition of forces. What a trifling dispute - marital infidelity - triggered that decade-long carnage. But at least, according to mythology, Paris really did abscond with Helen, whereas Saddam’s purported weapons of mass destruction (also the stuff of myth!) still remain to be found, as war criminal Bush’s bloodbath continues to unspool - and he paints doggies, escaping Scott-free from paying the piper for committing mass murder.
A standout in the cast is Acquah Kwame Dansoh as the über-warrior Achilles, whose awareness - like Iphigenia’s - of what is really going on ascends. The Greek chorus commenting on the action is led by the imposing figure of Bethany Thomas, as the quintet sings songs composed by Andre Pluess. Jim Ortlieb plays the Old Man - a slave not without guile - with comedic panache that seems more at home in a comedy by Aristophanes. Ortlieb reminded me of Jack Gilford as Hysterium in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Sometimes Euripides’ script has something I usually detest onstage or onscreen, wherein characters TELL instead of SHOW what’s happening. But considering that “Rip” (as his show biz pals called him - not!) wrote at the dawn of Western civilization and theater, I’ll cut him some slack and he can pass Go and collect $200, as theatrical conventions were still being worked out 2,500 years ago. Charles Newell adeptly directs this translation by Nicholas Rudall.
However, despite the Getty Villa’s Greco-Roman backdrop, scenic designer Scott Davis’ nondescript set leaves much to be desired. The stage has vertical lights (which to be fair are used evocatively by John Culbert at one point) with coiled cords that put me in mind of Medusa’s serpentine dreadlocks. Once again, costume designer Jacqueline Firkins’ apparel is largely devoid of togas, which is my perpetual complaint about contemporary productions of ancient Greek classics. Firkins’ raiment isn’t exactly modern dress per se, but if I want to see characters in Grecian works promenading about on the boards not clad in period costumes, I can take a hike down Grand Avenue.
In program notes, Rudall points out: “Euripides wrote this play… when Athens was dying… besieged by Sparta during the Peloponnesian War… At the time there was no other comparable theater anywhere else in the world and the plays performed there engaged directly with the civic life of the city… Iphigenia in Aulis is political theater in the truest sense: it is a play about the polis [ancient Greek city-state], intended for residents of the polis. Euripides is presenting a story about ordinary people dealing with the tragedies of war…”
More recently, at the height of that debacle called the Vietnam War, in 1970 Edwin Starr sang: “War, huh, yeah, What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” Shortly after Bush launched “shock and awe” against Iraq using the pretext of those nonexistent WMDs, at the age of only 61, Edwin Starr died - of a heart attack. Good god ya’ll, from Artemis to Jesus to Allah to Buddha, sadly the song remains the same through the ages.
Iphigenia in Aulis plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. until Sept. 30 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.at the Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. For more info: (310) 440-7300; www.getty.edu.
L.A.-based journalist and critic Ed Rampell is a co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist(see: https://www.generosity.com/fundraising/hollywood-blacklist-tribute).