Collateral Damage 

Eurpides' epic tales of Agamemnon begin with Iphigenia

If you liked the Berkeley Rep's recent production of The Oresteia -- or even if you didn't, but still want to give the ancient Greeks a chance -- it's worth checking out Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis, presented by the Shotgun Players at John Hinkel Park. In many ways the two productions couldn't be more different. The Rep had a great big fancy new stage with lots of bells and whistles and heavy set pieces; the Shotgunners have a clearing and some long strips of fabric. The Rep had a lot of actors and a hidden drummer; Shotgun has only seven actors, four of whom form the chorus, and visible side band, Goatsong. Tony Taccone went for a naturalistic presentation, while Patrick Dooley has gone for masks and mime. What the two share is an intense, critical examination of the Trojan War, told from opposite ends of the story.While The Oresteia detailed what happened when the war was over and Agamemnon went home to vengeful Clytemnestra, Iphigenia is the story of the war's beginning. Agamemnon, king of Argos, brother of the cuckolded Menelaus, and commander of the Greek army gathered at Aulis, has a problem. There is no wind to fill the sails of his ships, and an oracle has revealed that he must sacrifice his first-born child, daughter Iphigenia, to Artemis. Agamemnon (strongly played here by Jeff Elam) has sent for Iphigenia, using the ruse that she is to be married to Achilles (also Elam). Things start going wrong immediately. Not only does Agamemnon change his mind and try to stop his daughter from coming, but Menelaus (Mary Eaton Fairfield, who is as ferociously cunning in this role as she is imperious as Clytemnestra) discovers his brother's change of heart and sets upon him, enraged. Then when Iphigenia arrives, she's got her mother unexpectedly in tow, making it a lot harder for Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter in peace and quiet. What follows is a tremendous amount of wrangling over whether Iphigenia's going to get her throat cut or not, with old men and messengers (all played by Amaya Alonso Hallifax, who also plays the innocent, headstrong Iphigenia) running to and fro, Agamemnon wringing his hands, Clytemnestra raging, and everyone questioning the wisdom of this particular war, which is all supposed to be about returning the wayward Helen to her husband.

The tide shifts, literally and figuratively, when Iphigenia turns her impending sacrifice into the act of a warrior of Hellas. "I was born to serve Greece, not you," she reminds her grieving mother. Phrased this way, her choice seems heroic -- her act to ensure that Greek women can sleep peacefully in their beds, unmolested by intruders.

It's easy to glamorize a war that hasn't started. In its first appearance, the chorus of local women speaks lovingly of the beauty and manly attributes of the warriors in their gleaming armor. Iphigenia has found a way to fight for Greece, and her death will probably be a lot swifter and more merciful than the other sacrifices to come (ten years later, only a few ships of the massive armada will limp home), but her choice is still troubling. Is she claiming herself and her destiny, or playing into the classical concept of male ownership of women -- wives and daughters? Just as Euripides does not question why Helen "belongs" to Menelaus and must be returned regardless of the potential cost in human lives, it is understood that Iphigenia belongs to her father, to do with as he sees fit. While the choice he faces is horrible and will, as we know from The Oresteia, eventually lead to his own murder at the hands of his wife, it is still his choice: no matter how much angst it fills him with, no man will deride him for killing a daughter.

It's hard to believe, in the Shotgun staging, how few actual actors are involved. Like most Greek tragedies, Iphigenia is a time commitment, though the Shotgunners keep it moving at a fair clip -- there always seems to be someone running, and the three main actors shift easily between characters, creating the sense that there are a lot more people on stage. Andrea Weber's choreography for the chorus fills the space with intriguing images, transforming what could be some rather tedious choral odes into a visually arresting feast of motion.

Also, dramaturge Joan McBrien has created something new, a sort of satyr play that is presented before the play instead of afterwards, the goofy The Curse of the House of Atreus. While someone near me found The Curse to be a bit jarring before a serious play, I thought it was a cute, painless way to get the back story that Greek audiences would have already known.

Like most summers, this year there seems to be a Romeo and Juliet on every street corner. Director Yoni Barkan has distinguished his by setting Shakespeare's best-known tale in Germany on the eve of WWII, with Capulet a Nazi party member and the Montegues as Jews. It's an audacious and potentially controversial choice, but it works. In a somewhat unsettling juxtaposition, the story is framed as a tale being enacted in a cabaret, with a Joel Grey-type emcee (Jeffrey Meanza, in fine voice, lipstick, and thong suspenders) grinding and flirting his way through "Willkommen" before presenting the play's prologue. The play itself, spoken in Elizabethan text and dressed in '30s clothes, gains new dimension and depth with the reframing. Here Friar Lawrence (the powerful Armand Blasi) secretly prays as a Jew, hiding his tefillin before donning a cassock to move about in the world, and Tybalt and Sampson wear SS uniforms. The air of foreboding is palpable, the sense of doom evident from the very start.Nicole DuPort and Brendan Wolfe as the ill-fated lovers embody their roles beautifully -- she as the lovely, emotional, and somewhat bratty child accustomed to having her way, he as the handsome, impetuous boy concerned with nothing so much as love. Their chemistry is excellent; it's clear that these two absolutely must have each other. While Shakespeare ensured that the two characters would never get to each other very well, DuPort and Wolfe really knock their deathbed scene out of the park. The depth of his grief as he tries to get her lifeless arms to hold him, and her disbelief as she comes out of her chemically induced coma to find him dying, are both spot-on. Once again the reframing adds another aspect to the play -- what future would these children have if they lived, a Jew and his wife in a city marching toward the unspeakable horror of WWII?

The production has some weaknesses. Pete Caslavka's fight choreography, while believable in its design and intensity, would work better on a stage that was farther away from the audience, especially if the actors weren't so quick to anticipate the blows. Cast energy levels vary; the disparity between Capulet and his wife is the most jarring, with the blustering Bruce Moody nearly swamping Karen Goldstein, who is in turn the coldest imaginable Lady Capulet -- perhaps a choice made to contrast with the comical Maureen Coyne as Juliet's loving nurse. John Antonopoulos gives very little to his nearly invisible Montegue, which is surprising considering his fabulously bawdy, loose-cannon Mercutio. But Mike Egede-Nissen is all gentle cluelessness as a Paris we can really feel sorry for. Pete Caslavka seethes convincingly as Tybalt, and Zachary Gossett has his hands full as Benvolio, trying (and failing) to keep his friends out of trouble with a hearty believability. It all adds up to a welcome change from your usual Romeo, just when it seems all the possible permutations had been exhausted.


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