A vexed “Iphigenia and Other Daughters” at Krannert

In the university’s latest theatre department production, Iphigenia and Other Daughters, the only one who isn’t irrationally upset is Iphigenia herself. Ellen McLaughlin’s play recoups the statuses of several women from ancient Hellenic tragedy who are only referenced by the storytellers, and do not have voices of their own in the great arch of ancient epic. This seems to be the narrative kernel: the marginality of women, especially daughters, in the classical texts mirrors the actual marginality of these women in the lives of their husbands, fathers, and sons.

The difficulty with a work like this is to strike a balance in emotional display, to find an emotional temperature that will still resonate with the audience despite the archaic source texts. Perhaps due to the playtext itself or to the fact that director, Robert Quinlan, is male, the play turns on a very angry feminist bent–something certainly encouraged textually but unproductively overt in the execution. We have four main actresses that are the strongest women in the MFA graduate program at the moment. Despite their strength in previous productions, here they are angry from beginning to end without variation or crescendo. Their anger (at being women but also for the things their status has forced them to commit) is flat in its one-dimensionality, which they all replicate. Even Carley Cornelius (Chrysothemis), who brought her “A-game” to both He and She and The Crucible last year, seemed to be still looking for a sense of her character.

All four seemed to bleed together, indistinguishable in their performances, and the only thing that seemed to set them apart was the most effeminate thing on stage, Samuel Ashdown (Orestes). His meditation on trauma and its reenactments in the guise of revenge was far more interesting than the heavy feminist angle of the ignored domesticity of women. However, this element of historical social trauma is introduced late and goes by so quickly that you can hardly catch that the topic of revenge killings has become much more nuanced. There seemed a greater interest in portraying Orestes’ status as a victim of masculinity.

The set was truly beautiful and the actors engaged dramatically with it by pulling, tearing, or completely moving the giant swaths of white cheesecloth-like material and reshaping their own hyper-domestic spaces for each act. The costuming of the four main women were disparate, ensuring that the audience would be completely disassociated from any specific time or place. This was perhaps a good move considering our own historically disconnected relationship with the ancient Homeric epic. I have seen more bad Sophocles and Seneca performed than good, which perhaps reflects a general performative problem we have: we simply don’t know what to do with Hellenic tragedy anymore.

The dissociative dress and copious dramaturgical notes served as an appropriate comment on this, intentionally or no. A good example of this was the depiction of the chorus of girls, priestesses to the goddess Artemis. The excessive girlish signs, in unison, were so disingenuous and served no noticeable purpose but to represent complicity in the cycles of revenge. They worked to provide Iphigenia with a secondary audience to the one she was already performing. Instead of moving and meditating on the plot and theme of the play, the chorus simply worked to further alienate me from the subject matter. As a playgoer, as a woman, the predominate emotion I felt throughout the play was that of alienation, culminating in a profound sense of emptiness by the end. The production ends with Iphigenia poised as a statue being held up by red ribbons symbolic of blood and restraint. She is a literal pillar of peace, and Orestes lies unrequited in anything at her feet.

In a positive light, this play is interested in the hopeless unproductivity and waste of revenge, that kind of malice that has no end. That I should walk away feeling empty was appropriate, being made to mimic the emotions of waste and emptiness that the play was itself dealing with. The characters speak in narrative paragraphs rather than engaging with one another; instead of watching three acts it felt more like each character was performing their own micro-drama but sharing the same orbit.

Domesticity generally suggests a sense of closeness and interdependence between females, left alone in a homogeneous environment, but here they rend each other apart for things they did for one another. However, it was not the subject matter or the text that I think I was responding, too, but the stilted and over-angry representations. I didn’t know with whom to sympathize or what I was supposed to be angry about, especially since all of the men are dead before we ever meet them. Revenge is not an emotion everyday contemporary playgoers deal. Trauma, on the other hand, certainly is, and would have provided a far more productive emotional anchor. The playwright and performers seem to equally complicit in this militant need to comment on the void of representation of feminine domesticity. McLaughlin is so entrenched in the Homeric genre, and the performers were not–perhaps by no fault of their own, but by virtue of being so out of time and out of reach.

“Antony and Cleopatra” have commitment issues

The What You Will Shakespeare Company (WYW) just opened their second major Shakespeare production in a month’s time at the Channing-Murray Foundation: Antony and Cleopatra. Director Eric Krull makes an interesting link between the diva-like characters of the play and the many thematic parallels in modern hip hop music, but I am not sure if it was fully realized in this hip hop version. The only real incorporation of the hip hop element was the DJ-like musical interjections between scenes and acts, but this wasn’t carried into costuming or staging. While vanity seemed a clever and thoughtful linking device, by only using the music element the vision of the production was more confused than anything else.

The hip hop element could have been carried into the set, staging, or costumes, and would have been a better choice in this last case than the sad and all-too-revealing slave sacks that were used. Granted, this is a student production (not that we should ask anything less of them) operating with limited funds, but the pillow cases tied with rope to appear as togas could have been improved. Also, all of the actors looked incredibly uncomfortable walking about barefoot, and the male characters really struggled with their senatorial garb to a distracting degree. Bright colors, sneakers, and a full embrace of the hip hop aesthetic would have been more feasible, more appropriate, and would have served as a fun contrast to the dark and woody Tudor-style interior of the Channing-Murray space. The only set pieces were two columns made of mirrors that almost too pointedly emphasized the issues of vanity and may not have been worth the effort when Krull already had an interesting space to work with. Antony (Patrick Harris) and Cleopatra (Kate Stephens) had a lot of lines to swallow and didn’t miss a beat, however Harris was too much the stoic and Stephens too much the diva to find any chemistry, unfortunately.

Overall the production suffered from a sense of overt seriousness and gravity that left no room for emotional development or cathartic crescendo. Harris seems to be cast by the group–and his is quite the veteran with ten WYW productions under his belt–most often in serious roles like last season’s Doctor Faustus than comedic roles. This may be perhaps due to his dead-pan delivery and general demeanor of gravitas. However, his use of this same affect as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in WYW’s last product was probably one of his best roles, resulting in a Monty Python-esque thoughtful humor. The fact that the leads didn’t overwhelm the production–which tends to be a problem for this play, like Macbeth–left room for the often unsung supporting roles to get a little more attention. Sarah Chaney’s Charmian provided desperately needed comedic brevity, even if it was only in a well-timed sardonic affect and some slapstick miming. Nevertheless, this worked. One of my favorite minor roles, Enobarbus, got interesting treatment from Mark Pajor, who found a chummy initial characterization that was worked into a believably guilt-wracked traitor. (Check out this great interview with Patrick Stewart and several cast members of the Royal Shakespeare Company discussing his two famous interpretations of Enobarbus.)

It is Homecoming this weekend at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, so seeing Shakespeare may not be on the top of your list. I cannot say that this production would serve as the best substitute either. It just seemed that Krull didn’t fully commit to his concept. Rap and Shakespeare definitely go together: the Q Brother’s 2008 Funk It Up About Nothing won the Dress Circle Award for Best Musical among several other awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It is a genius “ad-rap-tation” and is thankfully coming back to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in early 2011. This production is a lesson well learned for the company on the necessity of taking risks and fully committing to an idea, however unconventional it may seem.