Shotgun Players opened their free summer outdoor theater program at north Berkeley’s John Hinkel Park on Sunday with a superb production of Euripides fifth century B.C. drama “Iphigenia in Aulis.”
This story is a prequel to the “Oresteia” trilogy that Berkeley Rep staged early this year as the opening of that company’s new Roda Theater. If you’re interested in catching up on the disastrous, dysfunctional family story that led to the “Oresteia,” this is a rare and terrific opportunity to see a strong production of an infrequently performed play.
The “Oresteia” dramatizes of murder of King Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra when he returns home after a decade of fighting the Trojan War. Clytemnestra’s action is revenge for Agamemnon having sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to the gods 10 years earlier, which the gods demanded in exchange for creating the wind that would allow Greek troops to set sail for war.
“Iphigenia in Aulis” backs the story up to that earlier time before the war, and recounts the circumstances that went in to Agamemnon’s decision to make the sacrifice.
“Iphigenia in Aulis” is a play about choices – about the struggle Agamemnon goes through as the country’s top political figure, weighing his personal family needs against his unique responsibilities as the leader of a nation.
The Shotgun production is an exciting, thoughtful and complex presentation of theater. In many ways, I preferred this lucid and uncluttered staging to the efforts of the Berkeley Rep earlier this year.
To create a script with very modern-sounding dialogue, director Patrick Dooley and dramaturge Joan McBride have culled segments from three different English translations of the play (by Gamel, Vellacott and Terranova).
Dooley has allowed the actors to personalize their characters in a modern way, while still managing to retain an overall heroic feel for the story.
Seven actors perform “Iphigenia in Aulis.” Three of them double up in the roles of the seven principle characters, while four others play the chorus. All but one of the actors are female.
All characters are partially masked, except for Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Iphigenia – an effective technique with the multiple casting.
Jeff Elam is strong as the manipulator and dealmaker Agamemnon, put-upon by politics, and nearly tapped out emotionally as his karmic house of cards teeters on the brink of collapse.
It is a moving performance, and Elam manages to make the character and his dilemma sympathetic. Agamemnon’s fear of mutiny, betrayal and murder by the mass of troops waiting nearby to sail, forces his decision to sacrifice his daughter.
Mary Eaton Fairchild is a riveting presence as nurturing but tough and clearheaded wife Clytemnestra, usually winning her debates with Agamemnon, but trapped by the political powerlessness of her gender.
Fairchild also effectively doubles (wearing a mask) in the role of Agamemnon’s resentful younger brother Menelaus, whose cuckolding by Helen is what sets off the Trojan War in the first place.
Elam himself doubles (also wearing a mask) as the comic relief character – jocular hotheaded warrior Achilles, insulted at being pulled into a marriage decoy by Agamemnon. Agamemnon tricks his wife into bringing his daughter to the camp for sacrifice on the pretext of marrying her to Achilles.
Amaya Alonso Hallifax is solid as Iphigenia, and even more striking in her masked role as an old male slave who turns the plot at key points.
A chorus of four (Valerie Weak, Joan Bernier, Hannah Evans and Naomi Stein) is a big part of the show – women of the community who gloss for the audience an ongoing historical and moral commentary on the action at hand.
Andrea Weber effectively choreographs chorus’s versatile, stylized and sometimes dreamlike movements. At the top of the show, the warrior choreography they perform with seven-foot bamboo poles make exciting the long family and political history they tell.
For music, there are drums and other percussion played by Weber, Daniel Bruno, and Joshua Pollock at the edge of the performance space, accompanying the chorus in its narrative, and elsewhere. Their subtle war beats work as effectively as a good movie soundtrack.
Show dramaturge Joan McBride has written an amusing 15-minute comedic vaudeville play – “The Curse of the House of Atreus” – that opens the Shotgun performance, explaining some of Agamemnon’s family history leading up to “Iphigenia in Aulis.” It is a complex story of betrayal, murder, incest and cannibalism.
This is a terrific show, and it’s free – although the lovely and persuasive Shotgun ticket ladies twist your arm for a contribution. The show starts at 5 p.m., and the weather cools off as it progresses. Take a picnic and some extra layers to wear.
Planet theater reviewer John Angell Grant has written for “American Theatre,” “Backstage West,” “Callboard,” and many other publications. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.