Iffy Situations

If I could write these columns in differing shapes, this one would look like a medal for bravery, to be awarded to JoAnne Akalaitis. Not that Akalaitis has done everything right in her staging of Euripides' two Iphigenia plays; much of it is an awkward mess. But she has faced head-on the problems of staging Greek tragedy 2400 years later; she has grappled with them hand to hand in her effort to make the plays live. You may come away infuriated, but not dulled; instead of moaning over the lost battle, you're exhilarated by her willingness to fight for what she sees as important.

And it is important. Iphigenia in Aulis, first produced after Euripides' death, is an extraordinary work, a huge, complex tragedy caught in a strangulating web of comic ironies. Its ostensible sequel, the slighter Iphigenia in Tauris (actually produced earlier), is like a romantic scherzo romping through the same themes; it was admired by the likes of Gluck and Goethe.

Iphigenia, elder sister of Orestes and Electra, is a pivotal character in the myth of the Trojan War— a self-sacrificing perpetual virgin, perfect contrast to her mother's sister, Helen, the embodiment of faithless sensuality. Helen's actions are foredoomed by Aphrodite, goddess of love; Iphigenia, contrariwise, is always linked with Artemis, chaste goddess of the moon and the hunt. Sacrificed on the latter's altar at Aulis, Iphigenia by dying makes the winds rise, allowing the Greeks to sail to Troy, where Helen's abductors will be taught a fatal lesson. The sequel softens the tale: Iphigenia isn't killed but magically transported to the land of the savage Taurians, who set her up as a priestess, making her sacrifice, to their version of Artemis, all intruding Greeks. She's rescued by the arrival of Orestes and his friend Pylades, obeying an oracle which says a trip to Tauris will cure the madness visited on her brother by the Furies for killing his mother— in revenge for her killing his father because of Iphigenia's supposed death. The Aulis story is a terrifying myth of endless violence unleashed by a single act; the Taurian appendix gives it a peaceful but patently contrived closure.

Ann Dudek (in white) and Chorus in Iphigenia in Aulis: bravery in the face of brutal irony
Gerry Goodstein
Ann Dudek (in white) and Chorus in Iphigenia in Aulis: bravery in the face of brutal irony

Details

The Iphigenia Cycle
By Euripides
American Place Theater
111 West 46th Street
239-6200

The Captain's Tiger
By Athol Fugard
Manhattan Theater Club
131 West 55th Street
581-1212

A Majority of One
By Leonard Spigelgass
Playhouse 91
316 East 91st Street
831-2000

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Euripides kids both, with the sardonic lack of faith that makes his plays seem so contemporary. He shares the views of the Sophists, who taught that there were alternative explanations for everything, and that every sentence contained the opposite of its surface meaning. Iphigenia in Aulis starts with a contradiction: Agamemnon, in secret, sending Clytemnestra a second message that tells her not to bring her daughter to Aulis. Menelaus intercepts it, and soon there's war between the brothers, which abruptly turns into peace as Clytemnestra arrives. She's been told that Iphigenia will be married to Achilles— who knows nothing about the plan— and Euripides twists the knife of irony till it cuts a full circle. Achilles is angry not that the girl will be killed, but that he wasn't consulted about the use of his name. At the end, grief-stricken Agamemnon leads his daughter to the butchering slab, resentful Achilles sprinkles the holy water, and— joke of jokes— Iphigenia herself is the only one to take her ritual death at face value, imagining with starry-eyed innocence how history will enshrine her as the girl who saved the Greek army's honor.

Brutality always lies just under Euripides' caustic surface, however wit-tily his ironies may shimmer. Akalaitis charges in and seizes it openly. Not for her the dignity of Ariane Mnouchkine, who had the Greek kings face off like warring samurai. Here, Agamemnon is a beer-bellied Babbitt, his pistol- waving brother the town bully. Doey Luthi's costumes, mixing ancient, modern, and futuristic, turn the action into an Absurdist battle of loungewear versus Star Wars.

Euripides loved to make his choruses alien commentators on the action; here they're non-Argive women come to ogle the soldiers, clad by Luthi in chic black dresses. Using every technique from group recitation to full-voiced choral song, Akalaitis puts almost frenzied effort into making this ancient stage convention viable; it's the nervous fragmentation of her attempt that finally defeats her. With the scenes, she takes full cognizance of the ironies, alternately pushing the pain up to the surface and flipping it into goofy, twitchy comedy. The disjunction shows Akalaitis's grasp of the play's strategy; the disparity shows her failure to achieve a style that can contain its dueling elements. Far too often, she relies on her actors' mannerisms rather than their abilities, losing stature in the process. Euripides' ironies depend on the dignity they undercut: Any ordinary bozo can cringe and lie; what's scarifying is to watch a powerful, dignified king cringe and lie. The final image of Mnouchkine's production— soldiers dancing in triumph over the prostrate Clytemnestra— summed up the paradox unforgettably. Akalaitis leaves us with nothing so cogent to remember, except that she, unlike the Greek generals, fought an honest battle. Among her largely novice actors, Ora Jones (Clytemnestra/Athena) and Eddy Saad (Menelaus/Pylades) have a clarifying power that, echoed in the direction, might have brought tragic grandeur without softening the brute clatter of the bitter jokes.

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