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Photograph by Patricia Tyler

Reluctant Offering: Amy Schwab plays Agamemnon's sacrificial daughter in 'Iphigeneia at Aulis.'

Beware Of Greeks Bearing Grief

City Lights dips into the ancient world for a tale of epic woe in 'Iphigeneia at Aulis'

By Marianne Messina

NO MODERN-DAY director can venture into Euripides' world of Greek tragedy without deciding what to do with the play's 2,400-year-oldness--those men in skirts, those talking heads in the Greek chorus interrupting the drama. And perhaps most problematic: those anthropomorphic gods. In Iphigeneia at Aulis, currently running at City Lights, the goddess Artemis has told a seer that the only way the "weather-bound" Greek fleet is going to get enough wind to set sail for Troy is for King Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia.

Director Amy Himes gives the ancients a respectful, elegant treatment in her Opsis Productions version of the play. Costumer Bonnie Rippberger resists the temptation to modernize the costumes, instead reproducing the flowing tunic-style garments worn by both men and women, showing much arm, neck and, in this production, the occasional peeking tattoo. Rippberger shines with her creation for Clytemnestra. Actress Lisa Slade's copper-colored curls bound in thin gold bands are complemented by shimmering fabric--rust blended into turquoise--and accented by royal gold jewelry, making this Clytemnestra look as if she'd just stepped off a Grecian urn.

The production reminds us that much of what we know about the ancient Greeks comes from the art work on such pottery by mounting an intricate cutout puppet and projection show within an urn-shaped frame projected on a backdrop. These unique moving tableaux, manifested by puppeteer Jesse Vail to often Monty Pythonesque effect, enact the heroic histories as various speakers recite them.

Hailing from an age in which oration was an art form and dramatic recitation was a competitive event, Euripides' speeches, long-winded by present-day standards, are probably this production's biggest challenge. With a minimal set--military tent to the right, tree stump to the left--Josh Fanene as Agamemnon gains command of the space by moving from one side of the stage to another during his speeches. Less effective is the unevenness of Agamemnon sitting on a stump while for several monologue minutes Iphigeneia (Amy Schwab) clutches and pleads for her life. Fenene takes the stoical approach, keeping his Agamemnon internal and perhaps too close to the vest. But by the second act, after heroic Achilles (Lance Gardner) reveals the political complexities that make Iphigeneia's sacrifice seem less preposterous, the long speeches are electrified.

The chorus in this production is beautifully done. In tight choreography and responsive lyrical arrangements, the five actresses (Heidi Kobara, Alma Pasic, Danielle A. Perata, Helena G. Clarkson, Jennifer Hartnett) manage to project mood like a movie soundtrack while creating the characters of young Greek women. They start out like teenage girls admiring their favorite heartthrobs (the heroes encamped on Aulis' shores), and they seem to absorb the suffering around them until they end the play like Isadora Duncan dancing grief.

Another strength of this production is Slade's slow-burning Clytemnestra. As a woman who has spent years polishing her perfect-wife veneer--in spite of some horrendous past grievances against Agamemnon (whom she kills in a later play)--Slade gives us someone who's always shifting inside her skin, someone regal, proud, calculating, caring, but yet "not quite right," so as to say all's not what it seems. It's a nicely subversive uncertainty for a play that ends chanting, "Go take up your task; we must all suffer."

Iphigeneia at Aulis, a City Lights production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm through Aug. 21 at City Lights, 529 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $15/$18. (408.295.4200)

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From the August 11-17, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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