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'Iphigenia in Aulis' at Getty Villa: Chasing the ever-elusive Euripides

'Iphigenia in Aulis' at Getty Villa: Chasing the ever-elusive Euripides
From left: Jeanne T. Arrigo (Chorus), Emjoy Gavino (Chorus), Tracy Walsh (Chorus), Stephanie Andrea Barron (Iphigenia), Sandra Marquez (Clytemnestra) and Jim Ortlieb (Old Man) in “Iphigenia in Aulis.” (Craig Schwartz)

The straightforward production of "Iphigenia in Aulis" that opened Wednesday at the Getty Villa's outdoor Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater might be retitled "Clytemnestra," so enlivening is Sandra Marquez's performance as the mother of the young woman whose life must be sacrificed so that the Greek ships can depart for Troy.

Marquez's Clytemnestra arrives in a cart with her infant son, Orestes, bundled in her arms and her virgin daughter Iphigenia by her side. The wife of King Agamemnon, who's leading the military expedition against the Trojans to retrieve Helen (the unfaithful wife of his brother, Menelaus), Clytemnestra barks orders at strangers while flashing a maternal smile that never lets anyone doubt who's really in charge.

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She has been summoned by Agamemnon to Aulis, where the Greek sailors are waiting for the winds to pick up so that they can set sail for war. She believes Iphigenia is to be wedded to Achilles, and haughty woman that she is, she's thrilled that her girl will marry the son of a sea nymph. What an advantageous match!

The truth is that the prophet Calchas has determined that Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter to the goddess Artemis for the winds to change. When the play begins Agamemnon is agonizing over what to do. He countermands his initial order, sending an old family retainer to prevent Clytemnestra from arriving at the camp with their daughter, fearing that once the restless Greek soldiers learn of Calchas' directive, he will have no choice but to follow through.

A weak man occupying a powerful office, Agamemnon fools himself into thinking that maybe his problem can be made to disappear. Menelaus, however, nips this idea in the bud, demanding that Agamemnon live up to his duty as a Greek general. He wants his adulterous wife back, no matter if it costs Agamemnon his stainless daughter.

Euripides, the most irreverent of the Greek tragedians, cuts these Homeric figures down to size. The characters are treated with odd touches of realism and their sophistic arguments are stingingly psychologized. Ruinous imperialist campaigns sharpened Euripides' demythologizing mockery. Heroes are in short supply, and the women are invariably more courageous than the men in fighting for Greek ideals. When brothers battle in these decadent times, they go right for the soft underbelly, and when husband and wife go at it, a marriage is turned into a union of flaws.

This Getty Villa offering, a collaboration with Chicago's Court Theater, where the production began, doesn't have the directorial imagination to capitalize on the playwright's lacerating modernity, which reveals as much about our own inept political leaders as those who brought the Golden Age of Athens to a crashing end. Euripides' fearlessness ought to inspire more radical artistic and political fervor. But this middle-of-the-road staging by Charles Newell of Nicholas Rudall's new translation compensates to a degree with its lucidity. The play is at least clearly delivered if not vividly conjured into theatrical life.

The design scheme — clothes of a contemporary style indicating no definitive milieu, a menacing mound of black electrical cords suggesting the stalled war machine — promises a 21st century grappling with this lesser Euripidean drama. But the theatrical aesthetic is too tentative to bridge the chasm between ancient and modern performance traditions.

Mark Montgomery's Agamemnon resembles a young, lightweight Charlton Heston on a Malibu sojourn while Michael Huftile's Menelaus evokes Bluto, Popeye's brawny, brainless nemesis reborn as an In-N-Out Burger addict. These suggested characterizations would be more enthralling if the actors were rooted more deeply in the dilemmas of their characters. But the superficial directorial liberties breeze past nitty-gritty textual realities.

Stephanie Andrea Barron lends Iphigenia a benevolent pertness, but she doesn't connect the romantic, sappy, impressionable daddy's girl with the resolved martyr who refuses to let Acquah Kwame Dansoh's geek-jock Achilles die for her. Even the dignity of her request to her mother not to mourn her death seems like a girlish pose.

Aristotle faulted the play for the inconsistency of Iphigenia's behavior, but Euripides intentionally emphasizes the changeable nature of all the characters, who see themselves at the mercy of shifting circumstances. The play is generous with its double perspective: Agamemnon is vacillating and cornered; Menelaus is selfish yet not heartless; and everyone would choose the easy way out if it were a viable option.

The play is worth dusting off only if these contradictory dimensions can be fully drawn out in the harsh ironic light of the playwright's vision. With the exceptions of Marquez, who plays Clytemnestra like a gathering storm, and Jim Ortlieb, who turns the old servant into an alarmed busybody, the company isn't up to the challenge. Gestures flap emptily. Too often the words of Rudall's translation go in one direction while the characters' minds seem to go off in another.

Greek drama in performance lives or dies by the handling of the chorus. Newell's staging bungles this challenge. The chorus women, who have come to the camp to ogle the glamorous military men and to moralize the unfolding tale, are dressed like bridesmaids at a suburban wedding. They intone their lines as if part of a church choir that every now and again tosses in some rhythm-and-blues groove to a starchy hymnal program.

Revivals of classics don't have the obligation to press contemporary parallels, but there's a missed opportunity here. "Iphigenia in Aulis" contrasts a spoiled incompetent leader who rails self-pityingly against his fate with a young woman who surrenders to a will greater than her own for the benefit of the state.

Agamemnon, who rose to top commander by pandering to mob sentiment, is now at the mercy of the forces that backed him. Iphigenia repeats patriotic slogans that the play as a whole renders meaningless. A society that finds acceptable the trade-off of "a daughter for a whore," as Clytemnestra bitterly phrases it, isn't worth dying for, even if there's no denying the purity of Iphigenia's sacrifice. The play exposes the hollowness not only of our politicians but of the myths that maintain the losing status quo.

"Iphigenia in Aulis" was produced posthumously along with Euripides "Bacchae" but seems to have been unfinished before the playwright's death. The surviving text is controversial, and scholars have long suspected that the ending is spurious. With its mix of genres and its nagging authorship questions, the play provokes as much academic head-scratching as Shakespeare's "Pericles."

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This version of "Iphigenia in Aulis" revises the final scene in a way that seems more beholden to the tradition of the story followed by Aeschylus and Sophocles. Euripides, who sometimes hewed to that narrative line, is comfortable reinventing myths to suit his own dramatic purposes. The play, which is more "melodramatic heroic comedy," as one handbook puts it, than tragedy, takes a bloodier turn here but the impact is more puzzling than powerful. The tonal tensions of this new version cancel each other out.

Euripides is more our contemporary than either Aeschylus or Sophocles, but we still have little clue how to meet the demands of his ancient postmodernism. If the Getty Villa is going to start shopping around for work to bring to its annual outdoor theater event, it shouldn't settle for modest theatrical ambition. What's needed are productions that fuse music, dance and drama into theatrical thought — the hallmark, and contemporary stumbling block, of this timeless dramatic literature.

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'Iphigenia in Aulis'

Where: Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Outdoor Classical Theater at the Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; ends Sept. 30

Tickets: $40-$48

Info: (310) 440-7300 or www.getty.edu

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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