Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Mind you, by the standards of many, if not most, theater companies, the twelve-member cast of Iphigenia at Aulis would hardly comprise an epic, but Ten Thousand Things has long limited their cast size to six, maybe seven on a stretch, even for big musicals like Fiddler on the Roof, The Music Man and Man of la Mancha. This has allowed them to be nimble enough to travel and fit on the small stages at some of the community-based sites in which they perform. Gradually, they have inched toward larger casts for a couple of their shows–their Into the Woods and The Winter's Tale had nine cast members apiece. But never twelve. While a cast of twelve is hardly extravagant, under the esthetics championed by Ten Thousand things, accustomed to making a handful of performers on stage feel like a full musical ensemble, Iphigenia indeed delivers the feel of an epic, not only in size but in the depths to which the play addresses the human condition.
Iphigenia at Aulis was the last play written by Euripides, considered one of the three great ancient Greek dramatists, along with Sophocles and Aeschylus, whose extant plays continue to be regularly staged. It was first performed in 405 BC, the year after Euripides' death, taking first place at the City Dionysia festival of theater in Athens. Its profound themes broach questions that remain unanswered today: What qualities enable a person to sacrifice themselves for a greater good? Who is in a position in terms of both legal authority and wisdom to define the greater good? If the teeming crowds demand a course of action that runs contrary to their leader's better judgement, should that leader defer to the will of the masses to maintain order, as well as to save his or her own skin?
Following strands of Greek mythology and legend, the play opens at the start of the Trojan War, launched by the Greeks through a pact by which all Greek city-states pledge mutual defense to bring back Helen, wife of Menelaus (King of the city-state of Mycenae), after her seduction by Paris, leader of Troy. Menelaus' brother Agamemnon is made general of the combined Grecian force, ready to set sail from the port of Aulis for Troy, with a multitude of Greek warriors. However, Agamemnon has a dark shadow over his head: he has offended the goddess Artemis. As her revenge, the goddess stops the wind that would propel the Greek warships. To release the wind, she requires Agamemnon to sacrifice his beloved first-born daughter, Iphigenia. Though distraught, he conveys a message to his wife, Clytemnestra, to have Iphigenia sent to Aulis. As a ploy to ensure she will come, he tells her that the great warrior Achilles wishes to marry Iphigenia before going off to wage war. Achilles is incensed when he learns that Agamemnon has used him for this deception, and vows to defend his honor.
There you have the entanglement of causes and characters, which the playwright has worked through in a manner that adheres to the logic of the society beholden to fates, to vain and vengeful gods, and to staking honor above all else. The chorus comprises the entire cast, with actors in the principal roles–Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Achilles and Menelaus–stepping out for long stretches as required, and other cast members taking brief turns as messengers and heralds. Whether given long recitations or brief speeches to affect a transition, every role is treated as an important part of the whole, conveying its worth as one of the spokes turning the wheel of inexorable fate forward.
Through the presence of the chorus, director and choreographer Marcela Lorca creates a balletic landscape on which the action unspools, with additional choreography by Brian Bose. Movement becomes as powerful as speech in bringing meaning to the piece. JD Steele's musical compositions are jazz inflected with hints of blues and in the latter moments, glorious gospel, and played with vibrancy by Billy Steele on a keyboard able to create the sound of multiple instruments. The chorus, in its various permutations, harmonizes beautifully, guided by JD Steele's work as music director–and what a coup, to have two members of the extraordinarily talented Steele family on board for this production. To add to the lush sound and sense of epic proportions, at select moments a mass of the audience rises as one–a community choir joining in, the voice of the people extolling the passion of on stage.
The best actors in town seem to line up for opportunities to work with Ten Thousand Things, and this production is no exception. Regina Marie Williams' performance as Clytemnestra is glorious, her heart-wrenching voice conveying the torment of a woman facing the most brutal of losses, for reasons that defy understanding. Steve Epp matches her as Agamemnon, tormented whether he tries to defy or to submit to the edict of the oracle. As Iphigenia, Isa Condo-Olivera is astonishing, presenting a range of feelings from girlish excitement over her impending marriage to a bona fide hero, to horror and despair at learning the truth, to a countenance of peace and even victory. Condo-Olivera is a fourth-year student in the University of Minnesota-Guthrie Acting BFA program and, based on this work, has a bright future ahead.
Will Sturdivant, an increasingly strong presence in the Twin Cities theater scene, delivers a commanding Menelaus, while Christopher Jenkins as Achilles conveys both the hero's brash egotism and a capacity to be touched by the generosity and courage he sees in Iphigenia. The remainder of the cast all are excellent in smaller, though essential, roles, but Sally Wingert as the Old Friend entrusted by Agamemnon with his messages stands out, as she always does.
The set for this production is spare, in the manner typical of Ten Thousand Things. Sarah Bahr has designed costumes that enable the actors to meld together as part of the chorus, yet with the simple addition of a robe, crown, cape, jerkin, or some other simple item–in pastel shades of violet, mauve, blue and dusty pink–is transformed into a distinct character. The sound at the performance I attended was outstanding, overcoming the diminished quality that is typical of outdoor performances–this was at Water Works Park on the Mississippi River, with the gentle roar of water spilling over the St. Anthony Falls Dam providing a constant backdrop. As all remaining performances will be indoors, at Minnesota Opera's new venue, the Luminary Arts Center, one might expect as fine or even more exceptional sound quality.
While this production of Iphigenia at Aulis may have the impact of an epic, it maintains the intimate and personal feel that is a touchstone of Ten Thousand Things. You are unlikely to see anything quite like it on any other stage this season, perhaps for any number of seasons. To give fair warning, this is not a lightweight affair, but if you welcome meaty drama performed at an exceptionally high level, and that bears the immediacy of today despite having been written 2,428 years ago, hurry and get your tickets now.
Iphigenia at Aulis runs through October 2, 2022, at Luminary Arts Center, 700 1st Street North, Minneapolis MN. "Name your price" for all tickets, suggested price $35.00. For tickets and information, call 612-203-9502 or go to www.tenthousandthings.org.
Playwright: Euripides, translated by W.S. Merwin; Director and Choreographer: Marcela Lorca; Composer and Music Director: JD Steele; Musician: Billy Steele; Set Design: Rachel Breen; Costume Design: Sarah Bah; Sound Design: Peter Morrow; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Props Design: John Novak; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Additional Choreography: Brian Bose; Movement Consultant: Darius Strong; Stage Manager: Jason Clusman; Assistant Stage Manager: Ajah Williams; Production Manager: Ryan Volna.
Cast: Stephanie Anne Bertumen (1st Messenger/chorus), Isa Condo-Olivera (Iphigenia/chorus), Steve Epp (Agamemnon/chorus), Katherine Fried (2nd Messenger/chorus), Christopher Jenkins (Achilles/chorus), Elizabeth Reese (2nd Messenger/chorus), Janely Rodriguez (chorus), Hailey "Sky" (1st Messenger/chorus), Will Sturdivant (Menelaus/chorus), JoeNathan Thomas (chorus), Regina Marie Williams (Clytemnestra/chorus), Sally Wingert (Old Friend/chorus).