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Iphigenia Alfresco 

The sad anti-war tale gets a fresh, masterful update

Wednesday, Jul 11 2001
"Tragedy," by its roots, means "goat song." This is healthy to remember. The word used to apply to Dionysian rituals involving goat costumes. A band called Goatsong plays behind the chorus in the Shotgun Players' free, outdoor production of Iphigenia in Aulis, and its arrangement of rattles, thundering drums, a broken cymbal, and a banjo played like a bouzouki has an elemental beauty that would be worth going to hear even if the actors forgot to show up. Goatsong, and the Shotgun Players, take the right approach to Iphigenia. They have an unstilted human sensibility that was smothered in the Berkeley Rep's recent Oresteia.

If you saw the Oresteia, you've seen a small piece of Iphigenia. The Berkeley Rep production showed Agamemnon with his daughter in a quick, vivid flashback. Iphigenia takes place 10 years before the Oresteia starts: Agamemnon is sailing for Troy, but unfavorable winds have stranded his ships at Aulis, where a seer recommends sacrificing his virgin daughter, Iphigenia, to Artemis. The slaughter will guarantee the navy a good wind and victory over Troy. Agamemnon has to weigh his fatherly feelings -- and his wife's outrage -- against the greater glory of Greece. Euripides wrote the play as an anti-war protest, but he also lacerated the strange superstitions of his ancestors; by his time, strict belief in the old Greek gods was fading. The Shotgun Players try to update these themes by casting the play as a conflict between family and career. "What will you wish in your last moment?" writes Patrick Dooley in his director's notes. "That you had directed more plays, made more sales or led the victorious siege of Troy? Or will we wish we had spent more time picking weeds with our mom and reading Neruda to our wife?"

I can't see Agamemnon as an ur-yuppie, so I'm glad Dooley restricted this reading to his notes. Agamemnon sends Iphigenia to the altar because of political entanglements and a sense of patriotism, not blinkered personal ambition. (If Dooley had dressed him as a salesman I would have been really pissed off.) But this Iphigenia is untouched by clever ideas; the actors wear simple, colorful togas with odd insect emblems (designed by Valera Coble), as well as half-masks (by Michael Frassinelli), and the result is a tragedy retold with surprising force under the trees at Berkeley's John Hinkel Park.

It starts slowly. The three core actors play double roles, and the weaker roles come out first. Agamemnon (Jeff Elam) has long conversations with his brother Menelaus and an Old Man, played, respectively, by Clytemnestra (Mary Eaton Fairfield) and Iphigenia (Amaya Alonso Hallifax) in masks. Fairfield and Hallifax are strained as these men, and Agamemnon lacks authority. (Elam needs time to warm up.) But then the chorus comes on. Four women in half-masks dance with long bamboo poles and describe Iphigenia's arrival at Aulis, twirling the bamboo to suggest chariot wheels. The swelling tribal drums evoke the approach not just of a royal daughter but also of death and war. Iphigenia doesn't know her father's plans. She comes to Aulis happy, thinking he wants to marry her to Achilles, so Hallifax's first scene as Iphigenia has a heartbreaking, naive sweetness.

From there it gets even better. Elam finds an emotional groove for Agamemnon, and Fairfield is masterful as Clytemnestra. Her outraged speeches are natural and clear. The production's performances overall have a veil of actorliness that's hard to escape in Greek tragedy, but Fairfield's Clytemnestra has none of it, nothing effortful or grand. She argues in plain language about the purpose of the war. The Greeks want to win Helen back from Troy: "To pay a child's life as the ransom for a slut?" Clytemnestra hollers. "To buy what we most hate for what we dearly love?" Come off it, Agamemnon. But he won't. Fairfield plays an eloquent voice of reason, aided by Shotgun's hybrid translation.

A curtain-raiser called The Curse of the House of Atreus tries to introduce audiences to the history behind Iphigenia; dramaturge Joan McBrien wrote a vaudevillian skit about Tantalus, Thyestes, Pelops, Myrtilus, and all the other irrelevant characters responsible for Agamemnon's terrible luck. It doesn't work. The actresses in candy-striped blazers and baggy pants play two or three characters apiece, confusingly, when all you really need to know is that Agamemnon's father has bad karma for cooking Thyestes' sons in a stew. An unpretentious approach to Greek tragedy is one thing, but The Curse is not a lively goat song so much as a tiresome bleat.


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