Because we can watch a newly adapted version of the classic play “Iphigenia” and think about its relevance to the war in Iraq, it becomes infinitely clear why modern drama begins with Euripides.
Helen Richardson’s bold new restaging of his masterpiece at the Voorhees Theatre at New York City College of Technology through March 16 is the debut of Tiyatro Global, a new Downtown Brooklyn-based, international company. The debut, intelligently directed by Richardson, is a co-production with Brooklyn College and its resident theater company, Theatreworks.
In reviewing this 2,400 year-old play, I felt much more like a war correspondent than theater critic. True, no bullets whizzed by my head, and grenades did not explode in the aisle, but the entrance of the 10 young actors surging from the back of the theater, and briefly stopping to tell their desperate war stories to various audience members (including me), effectively created the aura of a barbaric battlefield and its aftermath.
In the program, dramaturg Barry Honold provided a historical perspective to the play’s inspiration (“Iphigenia at Aulis”) and gave a thumbnail sketch of the main characters and their dysfunctional domestic relationships.
Agamemnon is a power-hungry commander-in-chief who’s ready to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the gods to make war happen once again. And his wife, the Spartan Queen Clytemnestra, while seeing through the doublespeak, is incapable of preventing her own daughter’s death. Iphigenia becomes the new sacrificial lamb, and the war continues to wield its double-edged sword.
Richardson has cast her actors for this production from around the world and seems to be closely following in the footsteps of the illustrious Peter Brook and famous French stage director Ariane Mnouchkine — whom she met and observed in 1988 — with this multicultural production.
To be sure, Richardson’s been a theater practitioner (director, playwright, set designer) in the US and overseas since 1988, but this work signals something new in her successful career. Her “Iphigenia” — on the boards after only one month of intense play development and a six-week rehearsal period — is a real achievement.
Richardson has boldly undertaken her own dramatic journey through “Iphigenia at Aulis” in writing this new adaptation of the myth. Instead of strictly adhering to Mnouchkine’s propensity for the grand style, she takes a more Brechtian approach to Euripides’s work. Her blocking techniques are clean, her actors’ movements natural and Euripides’s language is pared down to its purest rhythms and cadences. The playwright is the kingpin of the colloquial idiom, and Richardson is spot on with her streamlined version.
She has reached out and seized whatever she can usefully incorporate into Euripides’s more traditional wares. And fortunately, her artistry seems — albeit with a few rough edges — to capture the big themes, the heightened emotions and the eternal conflicts we connect with the ancient Greeks.
If you look past her innovative text, past the stage design, past the classical New Age costuming (Jenna Rossi Camus and Howard Klein), you will inevitably discover that the red-hot core of the show is its “rock world music fusion.” The production is a cross-fertilization of the rock world (leaning into a punk style) fused with the classical world of Euripides. The band Catal Huyuk — onstage from the get-go — underscores the big themes of the play (war, ambition and untimely death) and colorfully reinforces the chorus and dialogue during the performance.
There are a few shortfalls in some scenes, but overall, the acting is strong. Four thespians play Clytemnestra (Taliesen Farmer, Miriam Ani, Esra Cizmeci and Elizabeth Minna Richardson), two actors double as Iphigenia (Lucie Novak and Emme Bonilla), and the other famed figures are delegated out as single roles.
The quartet of Clytemnestras, I must admit, had its positive and negative aspects. I liked the universal dimension it suggested about the character, but then, one must carefully follow the story’s twists and turns to keep track of her as she subtly shifted persona — and actors.
Staging Greek drama without getting snores from the audience is a formidable task for any theater artist, but Euripides has found a new ally in Richardson.
Tiyatro Global’s “Iphigenia” will run through March 16 at the Voorhees Theatre at the New York City College of Technology (186 Jay St. at High Street in Downtown Brooklyn). Tickets are $12. For information, call (212) 663-0428 or visit www.brooklyn.cuny.edu.