Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"Iphigenia and Other Daughters" Brings Blood and Beauty to U of I

They don't call it Greek tragedy for nothing.

Even before the events of Ellen McLaughlin's "Iphigenia and Other Daughters," tying together the basic plots of Euripides' "Iphigenia at Aulis," Sophocles' "Electra" and Euripides' "Iphigenia at Tauris" in three short acts, the cursed House of Atreus has seen unspeakable violence and bloodshed.

Now, in the 4th generation, Agamemnon, commander of the Greek forces against Troy, and his wife Clytemnestra, have four children, daughters Iphigenia, Electra and Chrysothemis and son Orestes. But Agamemnon's ships are becalmed at Aulis, and the only way to get them moving on to Troy is to give in to the goddess Artemis' demand for a sacrifice. Artemis doesn't want just another deer or goat; she wants Agamemnon and Clytemnestra's oldest daughter, Iphigenia.

So, in the first chapter of this story, Clytemnestra and Iphigenia come to Aulis under the pretense that a wedding will be taking place. But where's the groom? Why is everything so still? And why is there such a terrible feeling of foreboding?

Many years later, after Clytemnestra has exacted a terrible revenge against her husband for killing her favorite daughter, wild Electra seethes with hatred, waiting for her brother to return and make their mother pay. The third daughter, Chrysothemis, remains above the fray, the "good girl" who just wants to have a life that isn't steeped in blood.

And finally, in Act III, the action moves to Tauris, where Iphigenia now serves the goddess Artemis as a priestess. Is she a statue, an immortal, or was she never sacrificed at all way back on Aulis? How can she and her brother Orestes end the cycle of violence once and for all?

McLaughlin calls her play a "female perspective" on history and myth, even though there is that one male character (Orestes) and he has an important part to play. McLaughlin's language is mythic and at times poetic, sharply written, never didactic, making everyone deeply flawed, everyone at least a little sympathetic, as she explores the themes of family, war, pain, and what it is to be visible or invisible in the world.

Robet Quinlan directs this "Iphigenia" with a sure hand in the intimate space at Krannert's Studio Theatre, helping his cast navigate the long speeches nicely, ramping up the drama with stark percussion and striking stage pictures.

Monica Lopez is twisted and dark as Clytemnestra, the one among the women who commands action and attention. She also looks stunningly beautiful in Amanda Spaanstra's costumes, like a sort of red carpet queen, and it's hard to imagine she couldn't launch her husband's thousand ships all by herself, without the divine intervention of Artemis.

Katie Norman is sympathetic and real (no small feat when you're playing a mythological girl) as Iphigenia; Elena V. Levenson is fierce and feral as Electra, who at times is more like a pit bull than a girl; and Carley Cornelius is demure and achingly normal as Chrysothemis, the one at the eye of the hurricane.

Samuel Ashdown enters late, but makes a strong impression as Orestes, child of war, lashed to a pole and covered in blood, finally the instrument of conciliation instead of death.

Spaanstra's costumes are effective across the board, offering a variation on the basic white Greek tunics with splashes of color, Michael W. Williams' sound design is discordant and creepy, and Moon Jung Kim's set design looks beautiful, with its black sun and gauzy white sails punctuating the stage.

"Iphigenia and Other Daughters" is well-executed all-around, making this Greek drama seem new and freshly heart-rending. There's a reason for mythology - it exposes themes that never leave us. Here, it's about woman and war, about pawns in deadly games, about children stunted and twisted by the adults who are in charge of them. And about who's who in history. Iphigenia, Electra, Chrysothemis. Are they still invisible?

Iphigenia and Other Daughters
by Ellen McLaughlin

Studio Theatre, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts

Director: Robert Quinlan
Scenic Designer: Moon Jung Kim
Costume Designer: Amanda Spaanstra
Lighting Designer: Michael W. Williams
Sound Designer: Elizabeth Parthum
Dramaturg: Zackary Ross.

Cast: Katie Norman, Monica Lopez, Elena V. Levenson, Carley Cornelius, Samuel Ashdown, Stephanie Galvin, Laura King, Naomi Mark, Dana Parker, Jessica Turner.

Running time: 1:25, played without intermission

Remaining Performances: November 3-6 at 7:30 p.m. and November 7 at 3 p.m..

Box office: 333-6280, www.KrannertCenter.com

This review originally ran in the Champaign News-Gazette.


  1. A play called "Daughters of Atreus" by Robert Turney played Broadway in 1936. It apparently made a favorable impression (the Best Plays volume picked it as one of the Top 10 of the season), and was published -- my hometown library had a copy which I read in high school -- but it now seems to have been forgotten.

    It used the conventions of its time of course, so it wouldn't now be as challenging as McLaughlin's. But it had a similar basis, a nearly all-female cast (Orestes did show up, and maybe Agamemnon did briefly too) giving its perspective on this myth. The characters onstage nearly throughout were the maids of the house, a group of maybe 8, all named and given different personalities, while much of the main action took place offstage. Very Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. I wonder if/how it would play now.

  2. It seemed odd there was no Agamemnon in this one, although I understood McLaughlin's point, to put the spotlight on the usually "invisible" women like Chrysothemis. Orestes is important, though, since he's a big part of the conflict (Electra is expecting him to come home to knock off Mom) as well as the reconciliation at the end. But Agamemnon and his motives are just so important to the story. I want to know how willingly or unwillingly he acceded to Artemis's sacrifice demand, and I want to know why Electra values him so much above her mother and her sister. We never see Electra with either Agamemnon or Iphigenia and I want to know what happened there.

    I also think Artemis has some 'splainin' to do. If we're going to make this a feminist piece (which I don't think McLaughlin really did), then how do we explain the battle between Clytemnestra and Electra as well as Artemis's responsibility in the whole mess?