Euripides' Iphigeneia at Aulis
Translated by W. S. Merwin and George E. Dimock, Jr.
Directed (and lighting design) by Eve Adamson
Performance dates: March 18-20, 26-27,
April 2-3, 7-8, 10, 14-15, 21-24, May 7-8, 12-13
Jean Cocteau Repertory,
at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre,
New York City
Reviewed by David Sider
Agamemnon: Craig Smith
Old Man: Christopher Black
Chorus: Elise Stone, Joanne Comerford, Sandra Sciford
Menelaos: Mark Waterman
Messenger: Kennedy Brown
Clytemnestra: Adrienne D. Williams
Iphigeneia: Monique Vokovic
Achilles: John Lenartz
The Jean Cocteau repertory has been around since 1971 (since 1974 in their current theater), each season performing several plays in tandem throughout the week; hence the odd array of performance dates given above. Craig Smith (Agamemnon) has been with the company for 21 years and is clearly the most accomplished of the cast; Christopher Black (Old Man) is in his first season and equally clearly the least accomplished, although not to such a point that he could spoil what was on the whole a better than average off-off Broadway production of a Greek play. (I note that among the donors supporting the company are Prof. and Mrs. Lionel Casson.)
Two recurrent problems in putting on Greek tragedies --how to handle to chorus and how to convey the proper level of tragic sensibility -- were met with differing levels of success. The chorus were only three in number, who for the most part spoke as individuals, only occasionally together. This is probably the best way to bring the words of the ancient chorus to the modern stage, especially when it is as small as that of the Bouwerie Lane
The recurrent practical problem is that most modern actors (it would seem) are not trained to speak in chorus, nor do modern directors know what to do with such an odd body during the course of a play. Too many voices chanting together wind up droning -- a deadly, or more accurately soporific, reading of lines several times removed from the reality of the original performance. Having the chorus speak as individuals, moreover, allows modern productions to avoid having the chorus address either nobody in particular (unless a deity is named) or the audience. Neither is a convention impossible for audiences today to accomodate, but since modern productions usually aim towards a naturalistic delivery, it suits them to have one chorus member address the others. In this, the three members of the IA chorus did quite well.
The Merwin-Dimock translation, which is both poetic and actable, helped them, as it did the rest of the cast. Occasionally, however, the tragic diction of the translation fought against the naturalistic level Adamson wanted. Even Smith had his problems with this; Black and Kennedy Brown (Messenger) were frequently off the mark, achieving bathos more than pathos.
Dressing the actors is another standard problem for modern productions of Greek tragedy, and this one did not overcome it. The costume designer, Steven F. Graver, cannot be faulted for wanting to provide more up-to-date garments than those worn in ancient Athens, but he failed to achieve a clear or unified sense of any particular time or place. The chorus of three young women looked as though they had just walked in off the street on their way from the East Village to Soho. The soldiers were in generic military fatigues and army boots. Clytemnestra arrived from Mycenae dressed in a brightly colored dress, somewhat suggestive of African styles, an impression augmented by the fact that Adrienne Williams is in fact an African American. There was nothing in all this costuming that an audience could not adjust to, but it was more jarring than necessary.
The night I attended the play, the actors returned to the stage to answer questions from the audience. They, at least those who chose to answer, had done their homework, and made no gaffes that a classically trained pedant could scoff at.
David Sider has written on dramatic action in Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Stesichorus.