‘Iphigenia’ turns female anguish into a weapon
Women loom large in Euripides’ Iphigenia, adapted by Amanda Petefish Schrag and Ben Schrag for Iowa State University and staged in Sioux Falls’ Orpheum Theater. Female emotion– rage, despair, hope– quite literally beats through every scene with handheld staffs. High-octane performances and technical creativity make a centuries-old tale feel timeless.
Iphigenia, first performed in 405 B.C., is Greek tragedy in its purest form: If famous general Agamemnon (Ryeland Doolittle) wants to sail for Troy to fight in the Trojan Wars with his army, he must sacrifice his beloved daughter Iphigenia to Artemis. He reluctantly agrees, and lures his wife Clytaemnestra (Emily Heckle) and Iphigenia (Lena Menefee-Cook) to Port Aulis, where his ships lay in wait, under the false pretense of a marriage to war hero Achilles (Ben Mayer). When the women discover the ruse, however, everything falls apart.
This adaptation of Euripides’ tale follows the original text closely, but the chorus plays a more active role in the story. Ben Schrag’s music ties them more deeply into the story itself than modern audiences might expect. It’s not quite a musical, however. The songs provide context and exposition because most Greek plays have at least five myths’ worth of backstory to consider going in. Schrag’s music is not very complex, but the alternative, chant-like melodies provide an effective soundtrack to the show. Though I was not a fan of the onstage, three-piece band, I did take a liking to the clever use of the cello as both an instrument and a sound effect tool.
Director Amanda Petefish Schrag has a vision and follows it. She hones in on the choral nature of Greek theatre and trusts her chorus to carry the story. The ensemble of 12 are indiscernible at the top of the show, using staffs to drum the beat of a war song in unison. They take on characters by wielding large, geometric puppet masks large enough to cover their faces and torsos if they so desire. The masks, designed by Schrag herself, are all unique; Iphigenia’s has white linen that falls from the girlish face like a dress. They are not just sources of identity, but also of power. At times, Schrag gives too much power to the masks, drawing focus too much from the actors, who did not have a concrete method of using the masks to convey emotions. Sometimes, they would simply be wielding them. Other times, the masks were embodied. As much as I love the masks, I found myself wishing for both more clarity and less infatuation with the masks.
Kelly Marie Schaefer’s costumes, while clearly Greek-inspired, take inspiration from both Ottoman and Greek fashion. Her costumes are neutral-colored, but she uses a variety of layers, fabrics and textures to create unique looks for the cast; Agamemnon’s dark gray wool sweater resembles chain mail and is paired with slate leggings and a leather overskirt. The gender-neutral costumes allow the chorus to be on a level playing field, even while telling a story where gender parity is not even a twinkle in someone’s eye.
Natalie Hinning opts for a collection of large platforms and strips of white linen falling from the ceiling to the stage in her scenic design. The set does not blow me away, but it does allow the designers and cast both to use the stage in other ways without making it too busy.
Most impressive, however, is lighting designer Patrick J. Immel’s use of silhouette screens as yet another exposition tool alongside Schrag’s blocking. At the top of the show, seeing the growing shadow of Agamemnon leading his troops is, for lack of a better phrase, really cool. Immel uses color with care, and never washes out the set or actors.
Despite playing the show’s namesake, Lena Menefee-Cook has very little of substance to do as Iphigenia. The character is underwritten, but Menefee-Cook utilizes her time as best she can. She commands the stage with dignity and poise when she is embodying Iphigenia and carries heartbreaking levels of both innocence and poise, most notably at the show’s conclusion.
Euripides caught a lot of heat from his contemporaries for his sympathy to the disenfranchised. In his writing, even the tragedies, women take control of their fates. Look at Medea, Helen or even Trojan Women. The women in his works, for good or ill, have as agency. They are free thinkers. They are murderers. They are characters, fully formed and fascinating. We see a bit of that in Iphigenia, who commands her own destiny at the show’s conclusion, but it’s even more present in her mother.
Emily Heckle gives a standout performance as Clytaemnestra. She carries herself with the raw desperation a mother who is about to lose her child would have. Her strong contralto voice carries with an aura of authority, only faltering in moments of intense emotion. She delivers her lines with such ferocity that even audience members struggling with the dense prose of the play reacted to one particularly satisfying interaction between her and her husband. She contrasts greatly with Ryeland Doolittle, whose portrayal of Agamemnon seems purposefully restrained, as if he is always on the edge of breaking. Perhaps he is. Either way, their dynamic provides delicious drama that is all the more interesting because of Clytaemnestra’s defiant nature.
Schrag spends a lot of time focused on Clytaemnestra’s rage and despair, almost to the point of discomfort. Heckle spends a lot of time isolated on stage in the fetal position, shaking with wretched sobs. Moments like these are dangerous; women’s pain is often romanticized in entertainment (looking at you, Game of Thrones) for no other reason than producers’ inability to elicit emotion from audiences any other way. Iphigenia toes the line with Clytaemnestra, but succeeds by focusing the lens on her. Her pain is not used as a prop for Agamemnon or even Iphigenia. By the play’s end, her pain is the show’s heart.
This shift of focus is the crowning glory of Iowa State’s Iphigenia. It does not settle for telling the story of Agamemnon’s fall from grace. Instead, Clytaemnestra asserts herself as the true tragic hero of the story. This results in some thematic confusion, since the script wants to tell Agamemnon’s story, but it overall works out because modern audiences crave characters as complex as her. Schrag does not fight this, rather, she lets the emotions of Clytaemnestra's loss carry the show’s final scenes.
Her gamble, however untraditional it might be, pays off.
Caught in the Age of the Social Justice play, Step Forward provides a unique look into the American struggle from the eyes of the United States Constitution
When looking at contemporary American theatre, it’s impossible not to see the opportunity for discussion and self introspection that inevitably comes with it. We live in a time where societal issues are a part of day to day life, and modern theatre strives to open a dialogue for change. We live in the age of “Theatre for Social Justice,” and in several ways we are more connected on issues that affect us all than ever before.
The University of Central Missouri’s devised piece Step Forward is a show that invites the audience not only to look within themselves but also to understand that how Americans deal with social justice is different than it is anywhere else. Step Forward it is a saturated, harmonic, and uniquely American piece of theatre that I deeply enjoyed and won’t soon forget.
As is common with most devised pieces, the performers began with a set of movements rather than a developed text. While using the United States Constitution as a map on their journey, they explore the idea of what struggle looks like in modern day America and wrote their own Preamble in response to the ideas presented in the original.
This “New Preamble,” as it were, challenges the audience to take a vow of loving thy neighbor as thyself without condition or limitation. It begs the audience to consider that while we may not always agree with or even understand the way in which people live their lives, this does not render them undeserving happiness and safety. This new Preamble challenges the audience to take away what is useful, to leave the rest, and consider and how each of us can work toward a kinder, more accepting “tomorrow,” for everyone.
Episodic in nature, each chapter capitalizes on and ranges from issues such as Black Lives Matter and police brutality, Love is Love, to women’s rights, and even climate change.
The set, bare so that the performers have space to move, is complete with four massive projection screens used for the purpose of flashing historical images in tandem with each corresponding piece. These include snapshots of various marches for change, civil rights leaders, and images of brutalized black men. The audience is seated close together in a protective thrust, a set up which is essential for an impactful performance such as this one--all too often theatre is packaged and topped with a shiny red bow. In traditional performance, the audience comes expecting to comfortably watch a show and leave feeling content and complacent. Step Forward forces the audience to challenge that logic.
The lobby, intent in keeping with a theme of destroying complacency, is littered with paintings depicting guns with flowers sticking out of the ends and once the show begins a massive neon American flag serves as the backdrop--From the moment I entered the theatre, I knew their message was going to be something special.
With very few spoken lines, the performers use dance and other forms of forced movement to tell the story, and overall it was successful and ravishing visually.
Certain moments outshine others such as the Black Lives Matter portion where the audience is asked to step into someone else’s shoes. More on this later. In contrast to the complete success of this chapter, however, there are a few “episodes,” which have a much clunkier feel than others, specifically the movement regarding climate change.
While the choreography is stimulating in the sense that it strays farther away from improvised movement and further into ballet, what really disorients me is the dialogue of this particular scene. Performers accompanied their graceful, flowing movement with random shouts of phrases such as “the earth is dying! We must save her!”these random declarations are redundant as the audience is already interpreting those truths from the movement itself.
In a piece where language is obsolete and second only to movement, it’s bizarre that they felt the beautiful choreography had to be accompanied by on-the-nose language that seems to be an afterthought in comparison.
This, however, is not an issue in the Black Lives Matter/ police brutality portion where a performer asks the audience to raise their left and right hands and to leave them there for the duration of the piece in order to stand in solidarity with the “Hands up, don’t shoot,” movement. As a woman of color this moves me to a place of utter heartbreak. I sit, tears streaming down my face, with my hands above my head in a silent theatre; already we know the ending to this story. In this delicately crafted breath between the reality of the stage and the one in which we live, we were all
My cousin, Mac Davis,
And Sandra Bland.
In this moment we must decide how we will react the next time another black face flashes across our TV screens. This is how successful theatre gets its audience to introspectively view the world around them as a place that is home to more than just themselves. This is how successful theatre enacts change in us all. Step Forward is a strong production that trusts in its audience’s ability to take away the vibrant lesson at its core; above all else, be kind.
Hiding Behind the Mask: Iphigenia’s flaws outweigh its strong message
As the sun rises on a deserted wasteland, the sound of a thundering herd floods the stage. But don’t get ahead of yourself. This is by no means as optimistic as “The Lion King.” With every step, a company of soldiers’ stomps onto the Orpheum stage with faces as stoic as the hypersymmetric masks looming above them. Adapted from the Greek myth by Euripides, Iowa State University’s production of Iphigenia attempts to capture the desolation of war-torn land and broken familial ties. While live original music and evocative mood lighting thrust the narrative forward, the company shows little enthusiasm and opts to let the stone-faced masks do the talking.
Caught in the middle of a war, Agamemnon chooses to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the goddess Artemis to send troops to war to preserve his honor. After hearing Iphigenia’s fate, her mother, Clytemnestra, and betrothed, Achilles, vow to protect the young bride at whatever the cost. Add in a sibling rivalry, a motherly protest, and a spouse’s sacrificial promise, and you get a familial feud more complicated than the Kardashians.
Pride, revenge, and deceit are common character flaws laced within tragic Greek characters. As relationships unravel and power is abused, the stories of their failures leave audiences more defeated than hopeful. Often, the downfall of the protagonist creates a chain reaction affecting their loved ones the most. Audiences only remember the central figure while supporting characters are lost within the personal woes of self-inflicted wounds, murder, and sexually charged motives.
Nevertheless, this version of Iphigenia aims to change this notion.
Though the original myth follows Agamemnon’s downfall, this energizing adaptation flips the saga on its head, recognizing Clytemnestra as the protagonist. Adapted by Amanda Petefish-Schrag with Bohemian war-cry music composed by Ben Schrag, the reinvented presentation contains a seamless structure interweaving archaic plot points with harmonious tunes.
Along with a liberating feminist twist, a live band including a cello, guitar, and female vocalist leads the company in minor folk melodies that accent a hostile domestic lifestyle. Together the chorus echoes the text, but alone, Barbara Fisher struggles to keep the energy alive with her breathless, alto voice. Band members also manipulate stringed instruments to create sound effects including an arrow screeching across a bow.
The company of Iphigenia functions as a unified army holding wooden staffs acting as weapons hammering the floor. The intermittent rhythmic patterns are a second language within the play and italicize significant plot shifts. Rather than actively listen, chorus members stare, expressionless as clay warriors escorting the Greek princess to her grave.
At the heart of this show is Emily Heckle who portrays Clytemnestra with valiant honesty. In fact, she offers the only wholly engaging performance within the production. Her yearning toward Agamemnon, played with dull aggression by Ryeland Doolittle, is both heart-wrenching and empowering. Rather than play Clytemnestra as a victim, Heckle embodies courage in the presence of fear, delivering frank heroism. Upon hearing of his selfish decision, she attacks Agamemnon with a message emblazoned with motherly conviction and wit.
Though not perfect, Lena Menefee-Cook and Ben Mayer enliven the play’s action as Iphigenia and Achilles with moments of passionate resilience. Menefee-Cook’s retaliation against Clytemnestra’s wishes is anything but childish. Poised with her back arched, she glides across the stage holding her mask as a valuable artifact. Alternatively, Mayer commands the stage as Achilles searches for answers.
Natalie Hining designs a simplistic set comprised of a long, rustic boating dock. At both sides of the runway, two multistep seaweed-green platforms serve as the “home bases” for the chorus. While the set satisfies the needs of the narrative, the paint job swipes across platforms with the same precision as cheap souvenir gemstones.
Charged with coloring a world by the sea, lighting designer Patrick Immel fills the sparse stage with orange sun-rays. Just as effective, baths of deep blue and blood red light flood the stage as Clytemnestra mourns and Iphigenia struts toward death. The only concerning quality about Immel’s design lies in the dark lavender light which cast a split shadow over the actors’ faces, leaving the mask as the focal point. In truth, the overall production followed suit by bringing the geometric masks to the forefront rather than the actors behind them.
Behind a bland color pallet and questionable texture choices, Kelly Marie Schaefer’s costume design combines the warlike garb of Vikings with free-flowing Romanesque fabric. Deep shades of greys and greens differentiated from the story’s key players adorned in shades of white, but the color scheme could not save the chorus from being swathed in thick, coarse yarn. Meanwhile, brothers Agamemnon and Menelaos, wear leather skirts that display the tough dexterity of hot-rod motorcyclists.
Lastly, Amanda Petefish-Schrag’s puppet design is innovative, to say the least. What is thought to be carved out of aged wood is, after all, made from layers of cardboard angled to display specific facial features.
Although there is no “Disney-fied” ending for these characters, the courage they evoke inspires all, especially women, to stand up for what is right. Unified in its theme, the production drew questions about the social correctness within classical theatre literature. Though lackluster on numerous levels, a powerhouse female-lead, gorgeous masks, and inventive orchestrations take Iphigenia from tragic to mediocre.
Iphigenia turns potential into disappointment
Have you ever written a story that you thought was going to be this huge poetic piece that solves all of the world’s problems, but ended up falling short? Iowa State University’s production of Iphigenia is one of those stories.
Where this adaptation fails is in the execution. Iphigenia would definitely be more comprehensible to a viewer that knows the myth. Since I had no prior knowledge of the myth I found myself lost right from the beginning.
Iphigenia opens with a hunter killing a deer, which just happens to be a prized animal of the goddess of hunting, Artemis. To atone for this, Artemis orders Agamemnon to kill his oldest child, Iphigenia. Agamemnon creates a fake wedding where he plans to kill his daughter for Artemis’ favor in an upcoming war. Agamemnon’s plans are foiled by his wife and Iphigenia’s supposed fiance, Achilles. Agamemnon decides to not kill his daughter, but Iphigenia chooses to be sacrificed anyway.
The message the show presents is that our ties to family are stronger and more important than anything else. Iphigenia definitely hammers this point home; the show features several moments where characters change their goals and objectives because another family member is greatly affected by it. An example would be Menelaos pulling his support for the war after learning that Iphigenia would have to be sacrificed to help war efforts.
Clytemnestra, portrayed by Emily Heckle, holds a strong role as Iphigenia’s mother. Heckle has some very intense scenes, and she definitely brings the required skills to the table.
Juawan Thomas, who portrays Menelaos, and Vivian Cook, who portrays Calchas, disappear into the chorus after one scene as their non-chorus characters, which left me curious as to what happened to those characters.
The chorus members do a fantastic job of keeping the story moving. The chorus chimes in with the occasional word or phrase that can at times feel like a character’s internal monologue, and other times provides subtext. The chorus’ blocking helps the show a lot. The chorus always finds a way to evenly frame the main action of every scene. Even while moving and banging their staffs on the floor, the chorus never draws focus from the action.
Iphigenia keeps it traditional by having non-chorus characters hold stylized masks, but the effort to try something “new” isn’t entirely working for the show. Some actors rise to the challenge of manipulating the mask and show emotion with voice and body language since facial expressions are for the most part blocked, but other actors couldn’t pull off the switch causing their performances to fall a flat. The actors were constantly battling the masks for who shows the most movement, in one specific instance an actor turned to talk to another actor, but they left their mask facing the audience. The use of masks also made it difficult to distinguish between characters, honestly I couldn’t tell the difference between the attendant and the messenger.
The band helps keep the audience’s attention. The band also provides a jarring sound towards the end of the show as Clytemnestra slowly lowers a dagger. With this movement the cello player makes a hair-raising scratching noise on one of the strings.
Blocking flows very well in Iphigenia; each actor is like a gear in a big machine. The whole cast also does a great job with synchronizing their staff slams; they’re almost always one hundred percent on time.
Natalie Hining scenic design for Iphigenia is large and involved, but it also has a very open feel to it. White thin strips of fabric hang from the rigging above, and these strips of fabric serve as entrances and exits; two strips meet in the middle of the stage and also serve as an entrance. A lighting instrument behind a backdrop allows actors to create silhouettes when they are acting out flashback scenes. The set also features three wooden platforms. One is a long flat platform that is used as a main acting space, and the other two serve as risers for the chorus. The set serves the production well because it frames action without limiting movement.
Lighting is featured in this show. As soon as audience members walk in they can see the side lighting on either side of the stage. One really cool thing that Lighting Designer Patrick J. Immel did for this show is use light to make thematic connections, most pointedly the linking of character deaths through repeated use of color. Overall lighting for Iphigenia is experimental. While using more standard colors like Bastard Amber and Special Lavender, Iphigenia isn’t afraid to use yellow, red, and blue to change the mood of the show.
Iphigenia succeeds in all design aspects, but holes in the plot leave uninformed audience members out of the loop and questioning—how much prior knowledge can you assume an audience to have?