So this is how it begins. Events are woven into the history of a family and reverberate through time. Iphigenia in Aulis is one of the most infamous stories, retold with supreme dramatic skill in a darkened room on a corner of 13th Street in New York City some 2500 years later. And this is the highest of compliments: it is received by its listeners not as reverent homage to any past, but as shocking news, only as old as the last hour.
Ann Washburn calls her work a “transadaptation” because she does not read ancient Greek and has depended on the translations of others, but beautifully states that while the language has passed through the hands of many ”the mind which shines through it, in all of its terrible and heartbreaking lucidity, is Euripides.” The proof that she has succeeded is that the language never flags, keeps our attention through the longest speeches, and above all, moves us.
The actors do their parts to give vibrant life to this reality. Their performances are multi-dimensional; each plays more than one role. I would use a word like “morph” but that implies observing some transitional change, while what they present us with, in turn, are distinct, separate characters.
First, we are addressed by Rob Campbell as Agamemnon tasked with a terrible choice. The winds are not favorable to the Greek fleet of a thousand ships poised to journey to Troy. The goddess Artemis has been offended and the seer Calchas has determined that only the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter, will appease the goddess.
Reluctantly receptive at the outset, Agamemnon has had a change of heart and tries to reverse his decision. He is confronted by his brother Menelaus, whose wayward wife Helen’s actions are the trigger for the devastating events to come and continue. Amber Gray plays Menelaus, suited in armor, and she later plays Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, in a flowing robe. Rob Campbell also plays Achilles. Agamemnon has tricked his wife into bringing Iphigenia to the distant Greek camp with the false promise of marriage to Achilles.
So what we have is an inspiring display of acting and character. Gender becomes irrelevant, as it is for the ever-present chorus, but more about that in a moment. Amber Gray skillfully acts out her conflict, the heart of drama, first as Menelaus with Agamemnon, then as Clytemnestra both with Agamemnon and Achilles. Rob Campbell is on the receiving end of these pleas as Agamemnon and Achilles; his impressive transformation is accomplished through a change of armor and attitude, and altered speech patterns.
Clytemnestra: “What prayers, tell me, do you intend to utter/When you sacrifice your daughter to the Goddess;/What blessing will you ask, as you slit her sweet throat?”
Iphigenia (Kristen Sieh), whom we have already seen as an old man and a herald, moves us as Agamemnon’s oldest child: “…don’t tear me from/the day, it is so sweet, to see the light they say/the things beneath the earth are hard to look upon” and “I woke up this morning to a rosy sky/I thought it was a dawn/and now I find it’s sunset”
Throughout, the chorus is meant to be as strange to us as they are to the Greeks: androgynous, colorful, exotic, heavily made-up, creatures of song and dance, accompanied by drumbeats and the thump of a bass cello. Curiously, they simultaneously react to and advance the plot, externalizing emotion and reminding us of how deeply the Greeks understood theater.
The action tries in every way to veer towards the best of outcomes, but the playwright and we know the folly of war, and the baby Orestes stands alone on the edge of the stage, presaging the fate of things to come.
IPHIGENIA in AULIS
Transadapted by Ann Washburn; directed by Erica Gould; lighting design, Austin Smith; sound design, Stowe Nelson; scenic design, Arnulfo Maldanado; costume design, Normandy Sherwood; assistant stage manager, Vanessa Coakley; musicians: percussion Geneva Harrison; cello, Collette Alexander; guitar/percussion/accordion, Shaun Bergson.
With: Rob Campbell, Amber Gray, Kristen Sieh, and chorus members: Audrey Elaine Hailes, Nike Kadri, Austin Ku, Jo Lampert, Abigail Nessen, and Ato Blankson-Wood.
At Classic Stage Company (136 13th Street, New York, NY — (212) 352-3101; www.classicstage.org) through September 27. Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7 pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm