Friday, November 5, 2010

Iphigenia at SFU Woodward's

The gods and goddesses in Greek mythology have a lot to answer for. First there's that rigged beauty contest between Artemis, Athena and Aphrodite that leads Paris to inadvertently initiate the Trojan War, the absconded Helen being his prize. Then there's all the mischief the immortals get up to in the lead up to the Greeks' attack on Troy. Wouldn't be a fair fight if there weren't some additional casualties and especially familial collateral damage along the way.

And poor Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army, seems to suffer more than most, starting with his fateful decision to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, which, depending on whom you read (Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles), sets off an escalating series of retributive and self-destructive acts by other members of his family: his wife Clytemnestra, his other daughter Electra, and his of course his son, Orestes.

In Euripides' first version of the story, Iphigenia at Aulis, it all starts with Agamemnon's presumption that he's a better hunter than Artemis. In retaliation for this boast, Artemis stills the winds behind the sails of the Greek ships gunning for Troy just as they reach the harbour of Aulis. Agamemnon is told by an oracle that the only way the winds will pick up again is if he sacrifices Iphigenia. He doesn't want to, but his bloodthirsty lieutenant Menelaus is insistent (in one version of the story even intercepting a missive by his boss warning his daughter and family to stay away), and so he sends for his daughter under the pretext that she is to marry Achilles. Problems arise when the none-too-stable mother of the bride gets caught up in planning her daughter's nuptials, arriving with a full-on trousseau, and consulting the young and het-up Achilles about his plans for her daughter. Achilles (who, you will remember from Homer, has his own issues to deal with, not least a more than brotherly affection for his comrade-in-arms, Patroclus) has no idea what she's talking about, and soon Clytemnestra outs her husband's plan and the real argument of the play (and of all Greek drama, really) takes centre-stage: the rights of the individual versus the interests of the state.

In Lois Anderson's staging of John Barton's 1980 translation/adaptation of the play, SFU Contemporary Arts' inaugural student production at Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, that question gets aligned in a very 21st-century way with political and religious extremism. That is, Iphigenia's eventual acquiescence to the will of her General father and her willingness to sacrifice her own life for the greater good of the Greek people (at least as the choice of death in this case is presented to her), it is suggested, starts to look a little like jihadism. In other words, if we connect the dots between Iphi's choice and that famous wooden horse that eventually gets wheeled beyond the gates of Troy, the girl starts to look a little like a suicide bomber.

It's an interesting approach to the material, but unfortunately in this production it mostly stays on the page--i.e., in the Director's Note on the program--rather than getting worked through materially on stage. Fanaticism to a cause is incarnated most forcefully by Menelaus (Troy Kozuki), and there are some wonderful moments of physical choreography (local dancer/choreographer Noam Gagnon advised on movement for the piece) that suggest a bodily short-circuiting of rational debate to a moral and ethical problem. But Iphigenia's own conversion to her father's ideals seems remarkably passive and resigned as portrayed by Anouska Anderson Kirby (the director's daughter). This could have something to do with the fact that this decisive moment in the play occurs on video rather than live, and while I applaud Anderson's overall integration of different media in this production, I question the choice of mediated delivery in this case, if only because in the cavernous space we were in it was difficult to hear what was being said.

Mostly, however, Anderson made terrific and theatrically novel use of the space, starting with Talthybius's (a superb Aryo Khakpour) opening entrance on his bicycle and the dropping of the upstage safety curtain. Special kudos must go to sound composer Elliott Vaughan, who made fantastic use of the space's available ambient sound sources to produce simple yet wonderful effects: moving the curtains along the stage left and right walls to suggest wind; pounding on exposed pipes and chairs and the floor for rolls of thunder, or approaching armies; and, in conjunction with Anderson, showing an intuitive understanding of the Greek chorus and the aural basis of Greek drama more generally through a canny use of recorded voice-over and live call-and-response from different parts of the theatre.

Lighting, costumes, and especially props (the reproduction of the stalled Greek ships was most effective) are also superb. And, in this regard, I was delighted to see that three crew members from The Objecthood of Chairs made material contributions in these areas: Milena Popović, Jordan Boivin, and Lain Kim.

Iphigenia at Aulis runs at SFU Woodward's through to this Saturday. Call 778-782-3514 for tickets.


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