November 14, 2018

Theatre Intime Presents “Iphigenia and Other Daughters”; Greek Tragedies are Told from the Female Characters’ Viewpoints

“IPHIGENIA AND OTHER DAUGHTERS”: Performances are underway for “Iphigenia and Other Daughters.” Presented by Theatre Intime and directed by Princeton University sophomore Rosie Vasen, the play runs through November 17 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Chrysothemis (Katharine Matthias ‘21, left); Electra (E Harper Nora Jeremijenko-Conley ‘20, center); and Clytemnestra (Abby Spare ‘20) confront each other about their family’s murderous past. Photo by Nora Aguiar.

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Theatre Intime, whose cast and production team consist of Princeton University students, is presenting Ellen McLaughlin’s Iphigenia and Other Daughters. The play is a contemporary retelling of three Greek tragedies — Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia in Tauris and Sophocles’ Electra — with an emphasis on the female characters’ points of view, though Iphigenia’s brother, Orestes, is integral to the story.

The show was commissioned by the Actors’ Gang in Los Angeles. It premiered in 1995, at the Classic Stage Company in New York City. McLaughlin has written several other plays based on ancient Greek tragedies, including The Trojan Women, Ajax in Iraq, and Oedipus.

Iphigenia and Other Daughters “humanizes these iconic figures that are the titular characters of their original plays yet are given little chance to tell their sides of the story,” says sophomore Rosie Vasen, for whom this production marks a successful directorial debut, in a press release. “I love it because it highlights and celebrates the voices of these imperfect women.”

The action begins during the events of Iphigenia in Aulis. Queen Clytemnestra has brought her daughter Iphigenia to be sacrificed — by her father, King Agamemnon — to the goddess Artemis. Iphigenia has been led to believe that she is going to marry the warrior Achilles, though she perceives that the situation is odd. “What is it to be a bride here?” she muses. “Nothing can happen here, I think. It is a place of dead air.”

“What kind of place am I taking my darling?” the anguished Clytemnestra rhetorically asks, adding, “A place of idle soldiers — the most dangerous kind. Spears over-sharpened by boys burning to kill for the first time.” Later in the scene, Iphigenia realizes, “Here is my husband: this ancient stone, and the quick shadow of the knife. I am to marry everyone.”

The second part, which is set during Electra, focuses on the aftermath of the previous scene. Iphigenia’s sister, Electra, is digging up a garden — to the dismay of their other sister, Chrysothemis — to make a grave for Agamemnon, whom Clytemnestra has killed.

It is during a quarrel between Clytemnestra and Electra that we discover the significance of this play’s title: the queen preferred Iphigenia to her “other daughters.” We also realize that Clytemnestra’s grief has embittered her, apparently draining her of any maternal feeling; she describes Electra as an “embarrassment.”

Clytemnestra is equally stony when she is told (deceptively) that her son, the soldier Orestes, has been killed; her response is to ask about the fate of his horse. Orestes arrives carrying an urn. He tells Electra, “Orestes, son of this house, is dead. I was his companion. Here are his ashes.” After they discover each other’s identity, Electra begs the reluctant Orestes to kill Clytemnestra.

The third and final segment takes place during Iphigenia in Tauris. We discover the true fate of Iphigenia, whose manner now is deadpan: “I hear my mother killed my father on account of me. I was impressed; I didn’t know I rated so much vengeance.”

Iphigenia is briefly reunited with Orestes, who has been sent by Apollo to steal a statue of Artemis. The two siblings concoct a plan to free Orestes from the Furies, who are tormenting him for the murder of Clytemnestra.

Iphigenia and Other Daughters succeeds because it has been carefully structured as an independent, cohesive entity. The events of the original plays provide a backdrop against which the characters’ reactions to them can be explored. What emerges is an arc in which Iphigenia begins as a character with no control over her circumstances, and is the source of the subsequent conflict. In the final segment she attempts to take command of her situation, and offers a resolution to that conflict.

Reviews of previous productions have objected to some anachronistic dialogue, particularly a reference to Jell-O. Although the line is uncharacteristic of the show’s overall mood, McLaughlin clearly wants the piece to be a timeless consideration of the extent to which incessant violence becomes a way of life, and destroys a family. This concept is supported by William Alvarado’s set, in which the garden is littered with clocks set to different times.

Similarly, the costumes by Haydon John prioritize character definition over establishment of a specific time or place. Clytemnestra’s black cocktail dress, and Chrysothemis’ equally impeccable gray dress, contrast with Electra’s ragged, loose-fitting costume. A delicate white dress underlines Iphigenia’s innocence, while Orestes’ outfit is dark gray, spattered with blood red.

The lighting by Martin Mejia aids Vasen in creating visually striking tableaux, particularly at the end. Mejia’s eerie sound design, too, enhances the tension in key moments.

At the start of the play, Carol Lee highlights Iphigenia’s palpable apprehension, as well as her prim determination to contain it. A usually even tone of voice is belied by nervous, though restrained, body language. In the final scene, Lee contrasts this with a calmer, matter-of-fact demeanor, underlining the character’s newfound equanimity.

Abby Spare infuses Clytemnestra with an aristocratic attitude. Her performance makes clear that the character’s justifiable grief and anger have become her reason for living. Like Lee’s portrayal of Iphigenia, Spare’s performance as Clytemnestra is marked by impeccable posture, befitting the poise she has learned to exude.

This reserve is immediately contrasted by E Harper Nora Jeremijenko-Conley’s performance as Electra. Where the other characters’ movements are graceful, hers are animated, punctuating her unabashed, operatic line delivery. The performance reveals that Electra has no intention of attempting to contain her emotions, which exacerbates her conflict with Clytemnestra.

Siddarth Anand lets Orestes alternate between reserve and abrupt expression of emotion. As with Clytemnestra, Orestes’ experiences have defined him; though like Iphigenia, he attempts to move past them. The cast is ably rounded out by Katharine Matthias as the long-suffering, comparatively placid Chrysothemis; and by the members of a dispassionate chorus: Amy Abdalla and Camellia Moors.

In addition to her work as a playwright, McLaughlin is a performer — she originated the role of the Angel in Angels in America — and in Iphigenia and Other Daughters she has given actors a series of poetic monologues with ample scope for nuance. The Theatre Intime ensemble, under Vasen’s skillful direction, delivers layered performances. Masks of stoicism are punctured by raw emotion, as archetypes evolve into human characters.