… Lucidity …

Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis is a very great play and its force comes across in this production.  It leaves you shaken by the tragic, and elated.

The play’s force lies in the extraordinary power of Euripides’ mind, and the experience of seeing the play in this production by Classic Stage is mind-to-mind, his and yours.  What a privilege!

The Greek army is on its way to Troy when its ships are becalmed at Aulis.  For days on end no winds arise to fill the sails.  The army is frustrated, morale is low.  A seer reveals to Agamemnon, the Greek leader, that there will be no wind until Agamemnon sacrifices his own virginal daughter, Iphigenia – sacrifice as in slit her throat on altar — to appease the gods who are angry for their own reasons.  Goaded to fulfill the gods’ demand by his brother Menelaus (some nerve, it’s to bring Menelaus’ wife, Helen, back from Troy that Greeks have raised this army) Agamemnon sends for Iphigenia, using the ruse that he’s arranged her marriage with Achilles.

Agamemnon is agonized.  He has second thoughts and even seems near to changing his mind about the sacrifice until Fate moves his hand.  Faster than he expected, Iphigenia arrives in Aulis, and not alone but with her mother and his wife, Clytemnestra – of course they came quickly, they’re excited about the brilliant marriage.

The Greek army is excited too, but for the opposite, deadly reason:  the sacrificial virgin that will get them out of this desolate place has arrived — kill her and let’s get on to Troy!  Agamemnon, under pressure from his brother, the army, and his need to save face – his reasons are never totally clear — decides he must move forward with the sacrifice.  The ambiguities of Agamemnon’s motivation are part of the power of the play.

And Iphigenia is, yes, actually sacrificed by having her throat cut … Miracle of miracles! — the messenger reports that at the least moment an animal appeared for the sacrifice on the altar, and, as a vision, Iphigenia’s moved on to a better place!  (Or did she?  To know the answer to that, you have to read Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris.)  And the winds rise, the Greeks can sail.  Although Euripides died before completing the play, the ironies near the end are so powerful one feels he must have sketched them out.  It just takes a genius.

Rob Campbell, playing both Agamemnon and Achilles, is effective at creating the two distinct characters.  His Agamemnon is a centrist powerful male, affecting in conveying the intensity of his conflict.  His Achilles is a youthful tough guy with something of a “Brooklyn” accent that’s amusing, but fills out the character and is not distracting.  I really got a kick out of the way he did it.

Amber Gray is powerful as Clytemnestra whose emotional journey takes her from keen anticipation of the great marriage, to betrayal by her husband and terror and grief at the loss of her daughter.

Kristen Sieh is touching in her main role of Iphigenia, the tender girl just emerging from childhood who shows, in the course of the play, strength and purpose beyond that of any of the male “heroes,” though (reluctantly because she’s a fine performer) I found her visually unconvincing in looking too old for the part.

There is one disappointing aspect of this production — the Mardigras conception of the Chorus, supposed to represent the women of the region, played here by men and women.  They come on as if the play needs more energy, which it doesn’t, and they’re there to provide it – in colorful no-two-the-same everything-goes costumes and exaggerated flowery crowns, singing and dancing to a folk rock score with a lot of repetitive chant beat, composed by The Bengsons.

The chorus includes some fine singers and performers but their choreography by Sonya Taheh involves much circling the central stage with thumping feet and jagged, staccato motions and is repetitive.  The big loss is this:  Euripides’ poetry is largely unheard or turned fragmentary, re-arranged in jazzed up singing.

But Eurpides has weathered more through time than a mis-conceived Chorus.  The play leaves one stunned, breathless, and full of thought.  In spite of all the misadventures that this play has experienced – at Euripides’ death his son or nephew wrote the ending, and since then it’s undergone copying errors and emendations —  Euripides’ voice speaks to us.

No one else could tell us these things, things we must know.  As Anne Washburn, the transadapter writes, “… the mind which shines through it, in all of its terrible and heartbreaking lucidity, is Euripides.”  This is absolutely true.

This production is directed by Rachel Chavkin

Iphigenia in Aulis, a part of Classic Stage’s Greek Festival, plays at Classic Stage in Manhattan’s East Village through October 4, 2015.