Bondo Wyszpolski

“Iphigenia in Aulis” at the Getty Villa

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L-r, starting in the center: Sandra Marquez as Clytemnestra, Stephanie Andrea Barron as Iphigenia, and Acquah Kwame Dansoh as Achilles. Photo by Craig Schwartz

A matter of life and death

“Iphigenia in Aulis” outdoors at the Getty Villa

by Bondo Wyszpolski

The expression, “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t” may be of modern coinage, but from the start of “Iphigenia in Aulis” words to that effect are pressing down hard on the head of Agamemnon (Mark Montgomery), King of Mycenae and Argos, and commander-in-chief of the Greek army whose fleet sits becalmed in the port of Aulis, unable to sail to Troy and thus rescue Helen, the perfidious wife of Menelaus (Michael Huftile), Agamemnon’s brother.

The boats are bobbing lifeless in the water because the goddess Artemis has an axe to grind and, according to the prophet Calchas, in exchange for favorable winds Agamemnon must sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia (Stephanie Andrea Barron).

To sacrifice someone pure for someone blemished, Agamemnon is horrified, as any father would be. But there’s more at stake than simply a vile trade-off, Iphigenia for Helen. There’s the underlying awareness that if the sacrifice isn’t carried out then the soldiers will take matters into their own hands and things will be much worse for the king and his family.

Written by Euripides and first performed in 405 BC, this tragedy (a co-production between the Getty and the Court Theatre out of Chicago) is being staged outdoors through Sept. 30 in the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades.

As the work opens, Agamemnon steps forward to address the audience with a bit of backstory, putting people and places in context for those of us who haven’t cracked open a book on the whos, whats, and wherefores of classical mythology since high school or college. It’s a compelling monologue, even riveting, because Montgomery, looking like he’s just jogged up to the Villa from Long Beach, has mastered his words, his voice, and his expressions. From that moment on, I found it impossible to look away.

Agamemnon has sent a message home to his wife Clytemnestra (Sandra Marquez) saying that he has arranged for their daughter to be wedded to the illustrious Achilles (Acquah Kwame Dansoh), and that she must send Iphigenia to him on the double.

L-r, Mark Montgomery as Agamemnon and Michael Huftile as Menelaus. Photo by Craig Schwartz

On second thought, realizing that he is deceiving his wife, not to mention luring their daughter to her untimely demise, he pens a second note (disregard my first letter and don’t send the girl after all), and entrusts it to the family servant, simply called the Old Man (Jim Ortlieb). Well, the Old Man is promptly waylaid by Menelaus, who then angrily confronts his brother. As if addressing the non-present Paris, who absconded with his wife, Menelaus says, “When you stole Helen you destroyed my life.” He can only see red, which is the color of revenge.

But the play is also a well-crafted exercise in dialectics and discourse, arguments for and arguments against, and soon Agamemnon relents (i.e., Okay, I’ll sacrifice my daughter so our ships can sail to Troy) at about the same time that Menelaus realizes that he’s been blindly selfish and, to his brother, Of course you must not put your daughter to death for my sake, my pride, my foolishness, et cetera, et cetera. Euripides, it seems, relishes the linguistic challenge of having his characters switch places at the table.

In their declamations and their acting, Montgomery and Huftile are a good match, both forceful in their convictions, from whatever point of view their arguments stem.

Soon enough, however, Clytemnestra arrives for the nuptials with Iphigenia and, in swaddling cloths, her daughter’s little brother, Orestes. Now, Orestes is of no significance in the story at hand, but in a tale (this one) that ends with the slaying of a child and later involves a mariticide, Orestes (at the urging of his sister Elektra, she of the complex) will thrust a matricide into the bargain. Of course, at three months old, he’s still quite unaware of what the Fates have cooked up and have in store for him. But enough of this diversion.

Alighting from her carriage (use your imagination), Clytemnestra is upbeat about the marriage and chats gaily with her future son-in-law, until she realizes that he doesn’t know a thing about being hitched to her daughter. Psst! says the Old Man, Here’s the sort of trickery your husband has been up to…

Meanwhile, and throughout most of the play, we have our elegant Greek chorus, comprised here of five women (Bethany Thomas, Emjoy Gavino, Jeanne T. Arrigo, Jess Godwin, and Tracy Walsh) attired in blue shimmering bell-shaped gowns, who speak and sing with the sleekness of a 1940s radio commercial, a chorus so in tune with one another, especially in their a cappella semi-gospel deliveries, that one would not be surprised to learn that this quintet had a professional career of its own. Over the years we’ve seen many variations of a Greek chorus at the Getty Villa, and surely this has to be one of the most impressive.

L-r, Stephanie Andrea Barron as Iphigenia, Mark Montgomery as Agamemnon, and Sandra Marquez as Clytemnestra. Photo by Craig Schwartz

When Iphigenia first sees her father at Aulis she runs up to him, the model of happiness and youth, whereas Agamemnon seems distant and nervous, consumed as he is by the decision he has made or will make, and this display of two moods sliding over and past one another is touching and perhaps even heartbreaking to behold.

That said, Barron’s Iphigenia is initially somewhat underwhelming. We don’t know it at the time, but we’re being “set up” for later in the play, which we’ll get to in just a moment.

Learning of the ruse, and furious because it’s at his expense as well, Achilles vows to keep Iphigenia safe from harm, a declaration that doesn’t sit well with his own men. Dansoh, however, doesn’t convey the charismatic strength and gravitas of an Achilles, and is perhaps the one lead in this work that seems out of place. Although muscular, he’s simply too tall and lanky and devoid of a warrior’s ferociousness.

Actually, the one with a warrior’s ferociousness is Clytemnestra, and if people tell you that Marquez is the standout actor in this performance, you’d be foolish to disagree. Then Iphigenia chimes in, pleading, Why, why, why father would you have me die, as she recalls all the times he held her in his arms when she was a child. And so forth. Mother and daughter pour it on so thick and heavy that Agamemnon almost melts into the flagstones, and we almost laugh at the brutal tongue-lashing he receives at their hands.

What happens finally is what has happened before. Having exhausted the argument as to why her father should spare her life, Iphigenia transforms herself from unwilling victim to willing martyr. She comes to believe that her selfless act will redeem the 10,000 soldiers impatient to set sail. “I bring to Greece,” she says, “salvation and victory.”

This is where the underwhelming early Iphigenia now blossoms into a maturity that makes her much more her mother’s daughter than her father’s. As staged, the transition is largely effective.

So it’s not as a sacrificial lamb that she proceeds to her death; I’ll not be coy and leave you guessing as to whether or not Agamemnon goes through with it. It’s enough for us to hear the wind picking up, followed by a climactic scene that utilizes the light standards arranged in a semi-circle behind the actors. For the entire length of the performance they have been more like sentinels, silent and without divulging when or if they’ll come on. And, at the end, yes, they quickly and decisively play their role.

It is, in fact, the final moments of this staging that foreshadows the events of another Greek tragedy, “Agamemnon,” by Aeschylus, which takes place ten years later after Agamemnon returns from Troy (a work which has already been seen at the Getty Villa).

Because “Iphigenia in Aulis” involves a hapless commander-in-chief, some critics of this drama feel that any resonance between the machinations of the play and the political shenanigans unfolding today should be brought into focus, forcibly or otherwise, and that not to do so is a wasted opportunity. I would caution against overlaying modern concepts of religion and present-day ethics on something that emerged four centuries before the birth of Christ (just as it appears nearsighted to apply today’s moral precepts to historical figures–whether Confederate generals or transatlantic explorers–no longer in sync with current politically correct standards).

Regarding the array of costumes, from this and other contemporary stagings of ancient Greek and Roman plays, one can see that costume designers are uncertain as to how to dress their actors. They don’t want to do straight-on costume dramas, which seems so passé, but they don’t want to resort to full-on modern dress either. So usually there’s a sort of Star Wars or Star Trek compromise, with characters looking like they’ve just returned from an audition for Cirque du Soleil. Here there’s quite a range, although it coheres well enough as an ensemble.

L-r, Emjoy Gavino (chorus), Stephanie Andrea Barron (Iphigenia), Jeanne T. Arrigo (chorus), Sandra Marquez (Clytemnestra), Bethany Thomas (chorus), Jess Godwin (chorus), Mark Montgomery (Agamemnon), and Tracy Walsh (chorus/choreographer). Photo by Craig Schwartz

I think that Nicholas Rudall has done a fine job with the translation, ensuring that the dialogue remains fluid and clear and poetic; and I feel that director Charles Newell utilizes the space to great effect. The play comes across as nicely balanced between tradition and originality. The work also feels timeless in most respects. The dilemmas, primarily with issues of loyalty that these characters are going through, could easily be ours as well (not so much literally as figuratively).

But lastly I must emphasize two things, the purity and clarity of the human voice in this setting, and the presentness of being caught up in this wonderful production which can be likened to a sumptuous meal that we savor to the fullest extent possible, even knowing all along that the sensations and the memory of it will soon irretrievably vanish. But in that blissful moment of total immersion, is there really anything better?

Iphigenia in Aulis is performed at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays at the Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy, Pacific Palisades. For theater ticket holders, the museum opens at 6 p.m. Tickets are $40 on Thursday, $42 on Friday, and $45 on Saturday ($36 students and seniors on Thursday only). Through Sept. 30. A variety of dinner options are available, and they do make an outing to the Villa an even better experience. Coming next year: The Bacchae, by Euripides, directed by Anne Bogart and co-produced by SITI Company. (310) 440-7300 or go to getty.edu. ER

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