note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
Electra…..Aubyn Dayton Philabaum
Chorus…..Scarlett Black, Bonnie-Kathleen Discepolo, Kimberly Green, Jessie
Hain, Emily Strange
Voice of Artemis…..Nina Pleasants
I have seen one of the final performances of Ellen McLaughlin's IPHIGENIA AND OTHER DAUGHTERS, which promised "to explore the roles of women in society throughout history through a uniquely female perspective", and, friends, it was the DAMNEDEST thing – by turns pretentious and riveting; rhinestones and diamonds strung together; Tragedy's mask sticking Comedy's tongue out at you. Had the women of Maria Irene Fornes' FEFU AND HER FRIENDS (see my review of that play) decided to do classic Greek tragedy, the results would have been this IPHIGENIA, I'm sure.
Ms. McLaughlin borrows her characters and plot from, respectively, Euripides' IPHIGENIA AT AULIS, Sophocles' ELECTRA and Euripides' IPHIGENIA AT TAURIS, with Orestes' madness brought in from Aeschylus' CHOEPHOROE and EUMENIDES (Parts Two and Three of his ORESTEIA). If you know little or nothing about the tragic (and complex) House of Atreus, I'll be brief: The Trojan prince Paris has abducted Helen, wife of Menelaus. Menelaus's brother, Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, sacrifices his own daughter Iphigenia to the gods in return for a victory against the City of Troy (and a wind to blow his fleets there). Coming home in triumph, Agamemnon is murdered by his vengeful wife Clytemnestra; she, in turn, is murdered years later by their son Orestes (aided by their daughter Electra). This fated house had already passed into myth when the Tragic Trio spun out their interpretations with fascinating variations (especially in the Clytemnestra-Electra relationship, and in Orestes' willingness -– or unwillingness – to murder the woman who bore him). And now Ms. McLaughlin has tried her hand at it, with mixed results – and, again, it's the DAMNEDEST thing.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that Ms. McLaughlin has filtered these tragedies through a "uniquely female perspective". (Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides may have been men, but they weren't too shabby in creating strong female characters that still resonate after two thousand years – Antigone, Medea and Hecuba, among others.) What Ms. McLaughlin has done is to select and abridge (trivialize?) their work, keeping the bulk of the ELECTRA with bits of the two IPHIGENIAs as a Prologue (AULIS) and an Epilogue (TAURIS). Save for Orestes (retained to wield the knife), all of the male characters have been discarded, and the Chorus, too, save for a blonde quintet in TAURIS as you will see.
The AULIS thus became a two-character sketch going into Beckett-land: Clytemnestra and Iphigenia are summoned to Aulis, having been told the latter shall marry Achilles, whereas only death awaits her. (Oddly enough, there are no hooded figures to surround the sacrificial lamb – and to help the audience understand WHAT IN THE WORLD is going on?) Since I have not read Ms. McLaughlin's play, I am in no position to differentiate between script and production, so I cannot say whose idea it was (Ms. McLaughlin? Director Judy Braha?) to have these women chant their lines as they repeatedly climbed up and down on fishnet-covered boxes to symbolize their arduous journey (especially arduous for Clytemnestra who wore heels and had a train that tended to catch on corners). The AULIS suffers for two reasons: (1) it needs balancing from the all-too-human Agamemnon, who presents his case as king and warrior as well as husband and father, and (2) the women are shorn of their magnificent speeches (Clytemnestra's fierce tirade to her husband's face regarding his planned sacrifice and her pleading to Achilles to save her daughter; and Iphigenia's own tearful speech, soon followed by her serene – even ecstatic – acceptance of her fate), thus reducing Clytemnestra to a lump on the floor (she has no one to play against), while Iphigenia climbs atop the altar, whining and spitting into a vacuum. No transcendence here; only Woman as victim – and a noisy one, at that.
The ELECTRA fares better – much better – because Ms. McLaughlin chooses not to depart from the original. Clytemnestra – though shorn of her lover Aegisthus – still rules in her dead husband's place; her daughter Chrysothemis continues to not rock any of her household's boats, and daughter Electra still obsesses over her father's memory, praying for Orestes' return that he may avenge them. (Feminists, no doubt, have trouble with Sophocles' Electra: she is such a strong character, yet she binds herself to her society's convention that Man, not Woman, is the rightful avenger – unlike Clytemnestra, who took matters into her own hands. The same problem occurs in Richard Strauss' opera ELEKTRA – the role calls for a leather-lunged Valkyrie, who must turn the glory over to the baritone who comes in halfway through the screamfest.) Why didn't Ms. McLaughlin discard Orestes altogether and pass the knife to Electra? She IS her mother's daughter, after all. This Electra is no outcast: she has chosen to live a dog's life (shades of Hamlet in his madness), living in filth out-of-doors, wearing a collar around her neck, and digging holes (graves?) in the garden.
Surprisingly, Clytemnestra enters in a purple dressing gown trimmed with boa feathers to do a catty, bang-on impersonation of Joan Collins as Alexis in TV's DYNASTY. (If it was Ms. McLaughin's/Ms. Braha's intention to provoke laughter here, she/they succeeded.) Finally, Orestes enters. From the way he kept twisting the hair on the right side of his head, you could tell he was a shock-shelled veteran. (The clothing for ELECTRA suggests post-WWI.) And then a brilliant moment of theatre blazed up: first Electra's aria over what she thinks are Orestes' ashes (all her grubbing and howling suddenly becoming focused), followed by the Brother-Sister Recognition Duet, an overlapping medley of joy and grief, reunion and plotting. And Aubyn Dayton Philabaum (great name!) and Daniel Zaitchik threw themselves wholeheartedly into this mini-opera sans music and made it WORK – a thrilling blend of classical tragedy and tomorrow's headlines (I say, let them take on Sophocles' version next). The offstage murder of Clytemnestra is nicely suggested: a scratchy 78 record is heard playing, followed by the sound of the needle suddenly scraping across and sticking (suggesting a knife slicing across a throat?).
The TAURIS epilogue returned us to Iphigenia, snatched away from death at the last second by the goddess Artemis to preside as priestess on an island of modern-day blondes. (I kid you not – they play with Barbie dolls, too.) Iphigenia & Blondes aren't happy; not only are they stuck on Gilligan's – uh, Artemis' – island, the goddess has commanded them to kill any man who sets foot there. The blondes drag in Orestes and deposit him into a child's blue wading pool (complete with a fish-and-octopus design) filled with bottled water from Poland Springs. (Again, the audience laughs – but is it supposed to?) Orestes, retaining his guilt-induced madness from Aeschylus, now has a motive from Euripides: he must bring back the temple's statue of Artemis as atonement for his matricide. Another Brother-Sister Recognition Scene follows, but lacking the radiance of the ELECTRA one. Instead, the siblings struggle over who kills who: Iphigenia must kill, because her brother is a man; Orestes must kill, because he needs that statue to end the curse on his house. What to do? Iphigenia realizes that she must sacrifice herself once again for Mankind – and thus climbs up onto a box to be turned into the statue that her brother needs. Blackout. The End. Huh?
To analyze this production any further could you leave like Orestes, twisting the hair on the right side of your head – still, I'm glad I went for those Electra-Orestes scenes. In addition to the excellent Ms. Philabaum (an endearing rag doll) and Mr. Zaitchik, I enjoyed Jane Bergeron's Clytemnestra, once she started sending the character up; I was actually sad to see the vamp go. Cheryl Moy, dressed in a boarding-school dress, made an amusing little goose of Chrysothemis and in her first scene flapped her arms like one (to suggest she is the niece of Helen, who was supposedly hatched from an egg?). But Heidi McNeill (Iphigenia) needs to work on her declaiming if she plans a career in classical drama; her screechy voice is one long, bumpy road for an audience to travel on.
Aside from the fishnet-covered boxes and the child's wading pool, Richard Chambers has designed an evocative set of doom up on the actual stage of the Studio Theatre – black curtains with yards of spectral white stretched across to suggest (1) webs to catch victims in and (2) winding sheets to wrap them in afterwards – all nicely lit by Matthew Guminski, especially in the eerie glow of Orestes emerging through the curtains, blood on his shirt and madness in his eyes. I could have done without the occasional spray of Ominous Smoke, though: the Studio Theatre has no ventilation to speak of, and smoke takes forever to clear in there.
The curtain call is a real hoot: Hawaiian music plays over the intercom, and the leads mount those boxes to strike poses as statuary. Electra bends over, lifts her skirt and moons Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra makes a moue at the audience and pinches her nipples like a monkey. Blackout.
I am NOT making this up. But the Mss. McLaughlin and Braha have.