REVIEW: Wesleyan's "Iphigenia" Strong Overall, But Details Need Attention
By Robert Stewart
War, when properly and diabolically tended to, can be created out of the flimsiest of excuses and the most absurd sequences of seeming logic, and thus actions performed in the service of war take on a residue of madness. "Iphigenia," which began a three-day run on Thursday, Sept. 23 at the Wesleyan Studio Theatre, 2710 N. 48th St., falls short of madness and shy of greatness, but it offers some notable performances and the chance to ponder the ridiculous reasons wars are fought and the not-at-all ridiculous toll they take.
The play starts strong out of the gate, creating a sense of idling time and a foreboding atmosphere as a robed and hooded figure appears and polishes an altar in the center of the stage. The figure is the Sorceress, played with gusto by Karlene Grinberg. Classic Greek tragedy lends itself to a heightened performance style, and Grinberg brings a tinge of the operatic to her portrayal. As she stands with her robe clutched and draped around her, the actor casts a spell as the Sorceress introduces the action.
For a war story, Iphigenia is unusual, taking place not on the front lines or in a tactics room but in the restless camp of a king and his army, trapped in doldrums, stopped short by lack of wind to drive their ships to battle.
The king, Agammemnon, has promised a sacrifice to the goddess Artemis and has failed to deliver, causing the current predicament. Artemis demands her sacrifice before the winds return and war can commence - but that sacrifice is to be Iphigenia, Agammemnon’s daughter.
Agammemnon is played with stoicism by Justin Hauke. The king is torn by divergent devotions, forced to choose which bonds of loyalty to break and which to honor; while Hauke brought an aura of tenderness and sadness to his Agammemnon, especially in his scenes with Chloe Petit as Iphigenia, the anger and deceit also present in the character were diluted - glimpsed, but not quite realized.
As the title character, Chloe Petit created in Iphigenia an ideal daughter, charming and full of joy. As mentioned, her scenes with Hauke contain some beautiful moments, especially as the play is near its conclusion. When her character discovers what's in store for her and realizes what she must do, Petit played a solo for heart-strings that was deeply affecting. At the same time, however, she had some trouble with the language of the speeches, and it was difficult to understand her when she turned her back. This could be attributed to opening night nerves: several times, other actors missed a cue or gave shaky delivery.
Derek Jeck as the Old Man made his presence felt in his brief scenes, and Ashlyn Eggebrecht as the Sixth Girl gave depth and thought to her portrayal. Other than those noted, though, the production seemed to suffer from a lack of variance in the performances. It often felt as if the emotion in a scene was coming from the power of the story, rather than the power of the acting; at those times, Iphigenia became a tale well-told, rather than a piece of theater.
At other times, director Chapman showed a deft hand at handling crowds of actors in motion. On a set of functional platforms the appearance of the chorus of Five Young Girls (Rachel Rubin, Kacy Caughlin, Sydney Kading, Natalie Micale and Jessica Porter) made for an animate Grecian urn, the entire space lively and well-composed. The scenes in which the chorus appeared were inventive and strongly staged.
Costume coordinator Elinor Parker points to the timelessness of the story by blending modern military uniforms with capes and robes to emulate the folds and drape of Grecian garb, but a lack of consistency in the contemporary clothing makes the effect feel muddled. At the same time, her color scheme is well developed and creates some nice effects, especially in a scene in which Agammemnon, Iphigenia and Queen Clytemnestra (Cherie Ronhovde) are gathered together on stage. It functions well in the broad strokes.
However, in one of those crucial details that begs for attention, Achilles (Jarrett Thomas) goes on stage wearing eyeglasses. At the point he enters, Achilles has already been talked up as a nearly invulnerable half-god,and eyeglasses seem a little out of character - after all, it's called ‘Achilles’ heel,’ not ‘Achilles' astigmatism.’ These little details mean the difference between a tale that’s true for all time and one that’s true because you say so.
In order to tell a true war story, you have to get the details right. "Iphigenia" strives for and sometimes achieves that focus but frequently falls victim to broad strokes, losing the trees for the forest.
"Iphigenia" will be performed Sept. 24, 25 and 30 and Oct. 1 and 2 at 7:30 p.m., and Sept. 26 and Oct. 3 at 2 p.m. at Nebraska Wesleyan University's Studio Theatre, 2710 N. 48th St. in Lincoln. Tickets cost $10 for adults; $7.50 for senior citizens and students 12- to 18-years-old; and $5 for students under 12.