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Iphigenia in Aulis

Classic Stage Company
136 E. 13th St., New York, NY 10003 40.733138 -73.989071
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Advance Tickets Recommended


Rachel Chavkin

Nearby Subway Stops

L at Third Ave.; 4, 5, 6, L, N, Q, R at 14th St.-Union Sq.

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Euripides has a God problem, too. His plays are about the gravest failings of humans but the humans are constantly being manipulated by immortals. The story of Iphigenia in Aulis, his final work, from around 406 B.C., is typical: The Greek fleet, becalmed in the title port, cannot get on with the business of sacking Troy until the slighted goddess Artemis is appeased. (She’s miffed because the Greek leader Agamemnon slayed one of her sacred stags.) What she demands as recompense is devastating: the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter by Clytemnestra. A conflict between personal attachment and political responsibility is thus established, one with huge significance historically (the Trojan War) and enduring relevance as well. But what are moderns to make of a conflict, however human and relevant, that is framed entirely by supernatural forces? Do we equate those forces with the general concept of fate? Do we read them as metaphors for individual psychology? (Maybe Artemis represents a kind of overtuned superego, punishing Agamemnon for his pride and impulsiveness.) One way or another, a production needs to take a stance that grounds the 2,400-year-old play for an audience that may not believe in one god, let alone hundreds.

Rachel Chavkin’s staging of Iphigenia, the centerpiece of Classic Stage Company’s Greek Festival, ducks the question. The gods are treated, amusingly enough, as demanding kinfolk, interfering but distant. The animating force of the conflict is thus the military itself, a mortal mob yet godlike in its insatiable hunger for war at any cost. This is a viable interpretation but not, unfortunately, one the text does much to dramatize. Instead, Chavkin offers marvelous spectacle as cover. The chorus of “foreign women” is rendered as a seven-person, pangender song-and-dance troupe in parti-colored Chiquita drag, not because that look has ties to an interpretive concept (this is not Iphigenia in Rio) but because, being the furthest thing from what you’d expect, it pops with the most intense vividness. The twirling, stomping, hysterical choreography by Sonya Tayeh and the haunting, ululating music by the Bengsons marvelously sustain and heighten the drama that otherwise seems intermittent.

Chavkin, who pulled a similar sleight-of-hand as director of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, has lots of nifty ideas; it’s just that not all of them pay off. The trick of having the three main actors play all seven speaking roles, for instance, never seems more than expedient, and forces unlikely attempts at differentiation. Rob Campbell, a moving and precise Agamemnon, offers a Bronx goombah of an Achilles. Amber Gray, visibly pregnant, doubles as both macho Menelaus and long-suffering Clytemnestra (but whose baby is it?); Kristen Sieh is not only Iphigenia but a servant and a herald, both rendered comically, as if Chavkin felt the need to reassure us that we will be entertained before being harrowed. Happily, most of the froufrou burns off as we get closer to the glowing core of the tragedy. Normandy Sherwood’s outlandish costumes — Iphigenia at first appears in a cabbage-y headdress that’s less Euripides than Dr. Seuss — gradually shed tiers and grow more dignified. And the sometimes spiky diction of the “transadaptation” by Anne Washburn (there are odd references to dynamite and “a metric tonnage of ships”) also takes on a more classic profile.

Once all these adjustments come together, the production recovers from its evasions and is able to speak for itself, if not about gods then the monsters who are men.