‘Iphigenia in Aulis’: Tragic, Bizarre, Riveting

The unhappy chorus
Photos courtesy of Craig Schwartz

The Euripidean Revival at the Getty Villa Will Have Some Scratching Their Heads, While Others Will be Gripped and Sobered by the Epic Account of Human Sacrifice

By JOHN HARLOW | Editor-in-Chief

Let us get this ghastly spoiler out of the way first: To modern sensibilities, it is a very strange experience at the theater when a production is geared for applause moments after the father cuts the throat of his daughter.

And yet, this is what happened after Euripides’ “Iphigenia in Aulis” premiered before 20,000 Athenians in 405 B.C. and again before 500 classical drama fans at the gorgeous, full-moon-lit outdoor amphitheater at the Getty Villa on Thursday, Sept. 7.

One assumes the audience was filled with classical drama fans: This is not a Broadway movie reworking, a comedy (although there are surprisingly light moments) or a musical (although the five-strong female chorus does produce some wonderful sounds, sometimes country-ish, but always soulful—a commentary on the slow-rolling train wreck engulfing this world).

“Iphigenia” is not for the faint of heart, but it is a powerful and painful experience about the grisly politics of family, pride and, to use a word unknown to ancient Greeks, martyrdom.

The play was written when Athens was collapsing, questioning the gods and seeking a savior.

It reflected contemporary needs.

High King Agamemnon Atreus had mustered a mighty but restless navy at the port of Aulis eager to sack Troy. There is a dubious causa belli: They are cattle-raiding chieftains, oath bound to rescue the kidnapped “adulterous whore” Helen for her husband,

Agamemnon’s ox-headed brother Menelaus. But there is no sailing wind to carry them to war and profit.

Mark Montgomery

The solution? Agamemnon must personally sacrifice his daughter to the gods.

Anything less and he will lose his base—the troops will turn on him.

So, virgin-in-white Iphigenia (Stephanie Andrea Barron) is lured to Aulis on the pretext she is to marry Achilles (a dashing Acquah Kwame Dansoh)—her generation’s Justin Bieber.

By the time Iphigenia arrives, Dad has come to his senses.

But the bloody wheels are in motion and not even the chorus’ array of slightly distracting arm signals (perhaps derived, like many actors here, from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and its familiar tropes) can divert the machinations from crushing all.

Acquah Kwame Dansoh

It is a well-dressed but stark production, saving special lighting effects for the last act, where Iphigenia takes control of her fate and demands, patriotically, to go under the knife.

This notion of suicidal self-sacrifice in desperate times resonated with the besieged Greeks, but mystified the Victorians, who revived the play.

And yet here, at the fateful turning point, it is presented as affirmation, as Agamemnon is encircled by seven powerful ladies of hard-edged feminist power.

The two royal brothers, projected convincingly as trapped dunderheads by Mark Montgomery and Michael Huftile, are cowed by the furious clarity of Iphigenia’s mother Clytemnestra (Fresno native Sandra Marquez) in a dress as dark as Homer’s wine-red sea.

She rages at her husband, recalling their terrible history together (A backstory Euripides created: As with “The Bacchae” and the Iphigenia sequel “Electra,” he respected the anger of women.), paving the way for a bloody future unseen in this 90-minute performance.

(The Getty should go big and give us all the House of Atreus plays on the same day, as the Greeks used to do: “Iphigenia” feels a little truncated, no pun intended, standing alone. It’s a grim soap opera franchise: You need to know what happens next.)

(But we are getting “The Bacchae” at the Getty next year.)

Stephanie Andrea Barron and (right) Sandra Marquez

The Atreus family dynamics are laid out, raw and ugly, as are the impossible political choices, both resonating with a modern audience.

One line between the brothers was recognized by the gripped audience: “A general can have half a brain but a commander-in-chief must be blessed with intelligence.”

Yet there is another line in this fresh translation by Nicholas Rudall that brings it all home. It’s from the family slave, all too often played as a rude mechanical here given depth by Jim Ortlieb, who warns the pacing, caged animal Agamemnon: “Power is sweet but it stands on the brink of grief.”

And so it proved at this remarkable night at the Getty.

Charles Newall’s production of “Iphigenia in Aulis” runs at the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater at the Getty Villa until Sept. 30.