Philly Fringe 2017: Philadelphia Artists’ Collective’s ‘Iphigenia at Aulis’

Lost at sea

Much anticipated (by me, anyway), Philadelphia Artists’ Collective’s (PAC) production of the ancient Greek play by Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis, is deeply disappointing. Pared down to what amounts to less than half an hour of dialogue in a 60-minute performance, this mighty play all but disappears before our eyes.

The ancient mariner. (Photo by Daniel Koontz Design.)

Adapted (by whom?) from Florence M. Stawell’s pedestrian and old-fashioned translation, every aspect of this production, directed by Dan Hodge, seems wrongheaded. The play is about the Greek army, eager for war, whose “thousand ships” are becalmed at Aulis. So the show’s venue, the USS Olympia (even the name sounds Greek), an enormous battleship docked on the Delaware River, initially seemed a genius idea.

Where's the gravitas?

But the acoustics in the small playing space are terrible, creating booming voices that muffle the language. However, the cast also lacks heightened classical diction — everybody sounds too American and too casual. And why would the mightiest of the kings actually go over to a servant woman and examine her sewing? Where’s the gravitas, guys?

The plot turns on the goddess Artemis, who has demanded that King Agamemnon (Nathan Foley) sacrifice his oldest child, the lovely Iphigenia (Becca Khalil); only then will Artemis allow the winds to carry them to Troy. To lure his daughter to Aulis, Agamemnon pretends he has arranged her marriage to the great hero Achilles (Gregory Isaac, the standout in this cast). Queen Clytemnestra (Tai Verley) and Iphigenia arrive filled with excitement and expectation, only to learn the horrifying truth.

The Greeks always kept violence offstage. Thus the burden of telling the events of the story falls to the Messenger, played by Adam Howard, who bears that burden well.

Filling in much inexplicably empty stage time are the Chorus (Peggy Smith and Stephanie Iozzia), who sing folk songs that seem inappropriate and become annoying as they go on and on and on. When Clytemnestra finally shouted “Stop!” at them, I nearly applauded.

Euripides was a radical thinker, often taking up political positions the other great tragedians, Aeschylus and Sophocles, would not have endorsed. So the lack in this production of any clarity of tone is troubling; Iphigenia, like Antigone before her, embraces her martyrdom and is intoxicated by her chance at fame and honor in recognizable teenage ways, seeing her role as the savior of her nation. Euripides may not have endorsed this quite as passionately as PAC’s production does.

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