In a departure from its usual gritty, avant-garde productions of plays by young authors, Washington Ensemble Theatre is tackling a bit of classical Greek drama, albeit a modern adaptation that swerves its revisionist gaze from the men to the oft-neglected and fairly pissed-off women. Iphigenia in Aulis, Ellen McLaughlin’s retelling of Euripides’ war-torn tragedy, is the story of a sacrifice: With his armada stranded on a windless shore and his soldiers going stir-crazy, Agamemnon, to get the wind whipping in the sails and to ensure Athens’ further participation in the Trojan War, sacrifices his most beloved daughter to the gods. Such a juicily patriarchal setup is so many fish in the barrel for a feminist re-evaluation, and McLaughlin takes full advantage, letting fly a scathing chorus of female voices full of pain, frustration, anger, and indictment.
It seems to be going around; just a few weeks back, a version of this very play ran at Chamber Theater under Frances Hearn’s direction, and Troupe du Jour staged a sexual farce based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which the fed-up women of Greece withheld sexual favors until their men put down their arms (see our May 2 issue). WET’s version of Iphigenia, directed by Lathrop Walker, uses only the first part of McLaughlin’s play, creating a kind of impressionistic sketch full of movement. Just under an hour long, the play washes over you quickly and often fiercely, a tidal flow of silences punctuated by the crashing of wrathful violence. It is best experienced not as a narrative but as a swath of raw emotion, something existing almost beyond rationality.
The play opens in blackness, into which Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra (played by Rhonda Soikowski), shouts, “I am a queen, and she’s a princess.” This assertion, at once pleading and defiant, sets the tone for everything that follows. Despite the sheer fatalism of the proceedings—Iphigenia’s sacrificial death is, after all, a fait accompli—there is the sense of a powerful struggle going on, as the women throw themselves body and soul against the ineluctable machinery of war. There is little dialogue, and that which exists is stripped to its poetic skeleton. The action is equally poetic, a highly stylized combination of dance and martial movement that gives the play a strong physical component.
In one extraordinary passage, a trio of soldiers (Aaron LaPlante, Tim Gouran, and Taylor Maxwell) march onto the beach for routine military drills; their repetitive gestures take on a narcoleptic aspect, a brainwashed sleepwalking that perfectly captures the restlessness and submerged brutality of what Clytemnestra calls “beardless, ignorant, hopped-up little bastards” awaiting battle. Finally, the soldiers simply cease moving, each one frozen in a moment of banality, and their paralysis remains unbroken for what seems an eternity, until Iphigenia (the talented Elise Hunt) at last wanders on in all her innocence and all hell breaks loose. Iphigenia is built out of such quiet, rhythmic moments of tension and implied violence—moments that explode like a lit fuse. Walker directs with a sure hand, displaying an admirable artistic patience in his willingness to let scenes tick incrementally to the breaking point, and then two ticks beyond.
To be sure, this version of Iphigenia is an odd duck. Walker utilizes only five pages of McLaughlin’s script, and the fragment feels more like a curiosity than a complete work—it jumps in, catches a single wave, and then just as abruptly jumps out. The play assumes a familiarity with its source material, offering but a snapshot of the whole. And yet, accepting these assumptions and limitations, that snapshot offers a unique view into a piece of classic drama. It’s nice to see WET move outside its usual realm of experience. Iphigenia doesn’t provide an obvious fit for the company’s considerable strengths, its well-established talent for hip, youthful, street-smart theater of the highest caliber. Such self-challenging is always a good thing.