Theater archives

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.

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.

Less lethal ironies are at play in Athol Fugard’s The Captain’s Tiger, a small, rather bland piece of reminiscence in which the now sixtyish Fugard (who’s announced his retirement from acting after this production) plays himself as a 20-year-old, setting off around the world as factotum (“tiger”) to the captain of an ancient tramp steamer. He means not only to garner seafaring experience, but to complete a novel enshrining his image (from family photographs) of his mother as a young girl, in which he’ll grant her a happier life than her real one. The other two characters are the illiterate engine operator (“donkeyman”) to whom he pours out his daily progress and the heroine of his novel. At first, both listen in flattered silence; ultimately, both rebel against his overweening quest for control, till both friendship and novel are irrevocably wrecked.

Though too wordy, like the samples of novel that make it so, the notion has charm, and Fugard’s presence gives it authenticity. An actor who looked a vulnerable 20, though, would give it conviction. Two further objections are the familiarity of the ideas involved, and the confusion over just who, in the woman’s case, is rebelling, the hero’s mother or the character he’s derived from her. Pirandello, a specialist in these issues, wrote plays that cover both cases. However muddled the role, Felicity Jones’s beauty and freshness turn it
into good sensual sense, while Tony Todd makes the donkeyman’s silences as articulate as his blunt pidgin lines.

Nothing is articulated greatly in A Majority of One, an old (1959) Broadway comedy that mixes mild antibigotry preaching with large helpings of what Jewish theatergoers call schmaltz (literally, “chicken fat”). A Brooklyn widow whose son died in World War II goes reluctantly to Japan and bonds with a Tokyo widower. It’s okay— both of his kids were killed by our side.

It’s all a thin, but amiable, excuse for two beloved actors to jerk laughs and tears. Richard Sabellico’s revival dampens the first act’s comedy, but thankfully cuts loose after intermission. Phyllis Newman seems to be trying to avoid evoking memories of Gertrude Berg, who created the role, but her understated rendition has its own sweetness. More riveting is the presence opposite her of Randall Duk Kim, last seen locally as Belarius in the Central Park Cymbeline. Kim’s the best transformative actor in America, equally wonderful as Puck, Hamlet, or Walt Whitman. A lonely Japanese tycoon is almost too easy an assignment; he immerses himself in it so thoroughly that I expect to see him on TV next week, announcing the collapse of another Tokyo bank.