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The Arts
May 10-16, 2006

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'Iphigenia at Aulis'

Photograph by Pat Kirk
Flying Heel: Craig W. Marker soars as a vainglorious Achilles.

The Deep Rumble Of War

The Taiko drums of conflict sound in San Jose Rep's new take on 'Iphigenia at Aulis'

By Marianne Messina

EVEN IF you are familiar with the linear plot of Iphigenia at Aulis, San Jose Repertory Theatre has turned Euripides' play into a sensual experience that penetrates and takes hold many levels deeper than story line—haunting music riding the back of warlike Taiko drumming, the image of a blood-red moon slowly eclipsing, the sharp clacking of rhythm sticks, Jeff Mockus' just-like-being-there seashore in surround sounds. And Kris Stone's scenic design succeeds where many an abstract set fails. The panels of corrugated metal at mismatched angles feed the tension and disorientation of chaos—war-hungry soldiers waiting on a windless shore to set sail for Troy, and a confused Iphigenia summoned for a marriage to learn she's destined to be a sacrifice in order to get the winds going again. The portal with a lighting surface behind it (Lap-Chi Chu, lighting designer) is ingenious for creating moons, cloud-capped skies and emotional tones in color.

Director Timothy Near turns the production into a cohesive antiwar statement starting with oil vs. renewables: silver-painted oil drums litter the floor space while imposing wind turbines jut out—at another contentious angle—from the sacrificial mount (that cuts space rather like a Mayan pyramid). Stacy Ross' Clytemnestra dominates the stage, whether playing vulnerable and cagey with the vainglorious Achilles (Craig W. Marker) or regal and uncompromising with her husband, King Agamemnon (Remi Sandri).

With the help of Sarah Nealis as Iphigenia, Near presents an interesting take on Iphigenia's shift from begging for life to submitting to martyrdom. After her exchange with Achilles, Iphigenia is not so much enthralled by him as by his code. "Everything depends on me. ... I shall become famous as the woman who set Greece free." She speaks expansively and holds out her arms melodramatically, and it seems in this instant that she has been infected by Achillean hubris. This throws the notion of martyrdom back into question (chaos).

The production makes it clear that the women are intrinsically the most powerful characters. A panting, overly fraught performance by Remi Sandri renders his Agamemnon feckless and pusillanimous. In fact, the men's speech and action are often diverted to comic relief. (Check out the ingenious roller toe that helps the old servant, played by Jarek Truszczynski, drag his game leg behind him.) Achilles is played as a Bubba G.I. Joe who wears "ARMY" both on his chest and on his cutoff T-shirt. Disempowering the men in this polemic knocks out some of the psychic winds (like the heroic code) underlying the perfect storm of war.

But this production is too important to linger on its flaws, especially in the way it captures the "terrifying energy" and "the uncontrollable lust" that seems independent of individual action in times of war. The Taiko drum is the perfect vehicle for this gut-felt energy, and so is Near's brilliant choice for the chorus: choreographer Krissy Keefer and her fellow members of the Dance Brigade (Keefer was also assistant director on the production). The play opens with red stage lighting, the dancers and the drum, and throughout, such powerful sequences keep up the tense energy that electrifies this play. This production turns theatrical risks into a unified, powerful experience that jangles subconscious nerves, and when it's over, a long deep breath is the only way to let its repercussions settle.

Ipighenia at Aulis, a San Jose Repertory Theatre production, plays Wednesday at 8pm (plus May 24 at noon), Friday-Saturday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sunday at 2pm and 7pm (no evening show May 28) through May 28 at the Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $33-$55. (408.367.7255)

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