Stage Door Review 2022

Iphigenia and the Furies (On Taurian Land)

Saturday, February 26, 2022


by Ho Ka Kei, directed by Jonathan Seinen

Saga Collectif, Architect Theatre & Theatre Passe Muraille, Toronto

February 23-26, 2022 online

Iphigenia: “I’m trapped in a cycle of sacrifice – having been spared from one I now inflict it as a daily chore”

Saga Collectif, Architect Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille have remounted Iphigenia and the Furies (On Taurian Land) by Ho Ka Kei (aka Jeff Ho). This gives those of us who missed the original production in 2019 at Daniels Spectrum a welcome second chance to see the award-winning play – albeit digitally rather than live and in person. (Theatre Passe Muraille had planned to present the play live in January 2022, but the surge of the Omicron variant of Covid put paid to that idea.) What we find in the digital production is a play well acted with an imaginative and striking design that help to ground an extremely uneven text.

In her “Message from the Artistic Director” Marjorie Chan states that Ho Ka Kei “is offering a modern adaptation of the classical play by Euripides, that is irreverent and enlightening. He has reached back to a tale that an audience may feel they already know or understand from either the original myth or its multiple iterations”. This is hardly likely. Euripides wrote two surviving plays about Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra – Iphigenia in Tauris (c. 414 bc) and Iphigenia in Aulis (405 bc). Stratford has performed three of Euripides’ plays but neither of the Iphigenias. Audiences will not be familiar with the story from Homer since he tells only of the happenings at Aulis not Tauris.

Therefore, the only way even a dedicated Toronto theatre-goer could have encountered this story of Iphigenia is via Gluck’s famed operatic version Iphigénie en Tauride (1779) that Opera Atelier staged in 2003 and 2009 and that the COC staged in 2011. Because of this the average TPM audience, unless an opera fan or great reader of Euripides, is unlikely to have any knowledge of the play that Ho is adapting and therefore no context to judge what changes Ho is making.

Ho’s awkward title doesn’t make understanding the play any clearer. It is Orestes, Iphigenia’s brother, who is pursued by the Furies, not Iphigenia. In English the play is commonly known as Iphigenia in Tauris even though there is no such place as Tauris. Euripides’ title, Ἰφιγένεια ἐν Ταύροις, means “Iphigenia Among the Taurians”. If Ho wanted to correct an historical error, why not simply say that? He doesn’t, though, because he wants to suggest that Iphigenia is a foreign interloper in the Taurians’ homeland, despite a goddess’s having placed her there.

The background to Ho’s play is the same as that of Gluck’s opera. Ten years earlier Iphigenia’s father Agamemnon had assembled a mighty fleet of Greek ships in order to attack Troy and bring back the Greek woman Helen, who had been abducted to Troy by the Trojan prince Paris. (The fact that Helen, a married woman, had been given to Paris as a gift by three goddesses has no effect on Agamemnon’s warmongering.) Agamemnon however, has accidentally killed a stag sacred to the goddess Artemis and she vows to prevent the fleet from sailing until Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia.

This Agamemnon does, thereby incurring his wife’s undying hatred, and the fleet sails off to war. No one realizes, however, in the Tauris version, that Artemis has substituted a deer (Ho says it’s a pig) for Iphigenia and has whisked her away to the Taurian people of Crimea who devoutly worship Artemis above all other gods. There Artemis makes Iphigenia High-Priestess of her temple and in change of the human sacrifice practiced there in Artemis’ name. The laws among the Taurians is that any foreigner must be sacrificed.

When the play’s action begins the Trojan War has ended. Clytemnestra has killed Agamemnon for having sacrificed Iphigenia and Iphigenia’s brother Orestes, has killed Clytemnestra and her lover for having killed Agamemnon. For the crime of matricide he is plagued by the Furies who have driven him out of Aulis. Orestes faithful lover Pylades has accompanied him on this journey. The god Apollo, brother of Artemis, has told Orestes that if her can steal the statues of Artemis worshipped by the Taurians, he will free him from the Furies. This, of course, means that Orestes and Pylades becomes foreigners among the Taurians and that it becomes the duty of Iphigenia to sacrifice them. So much time has elapsed that the siblings do not recognize each other and, besides this, each thinks the other has died.

The most famous adaptation of Euripides’ play is Iphigenia auf Tauris (1779) by Goethe, who uses the adaptation to attack the barbarity of the Taurians’ xenophobia and to promote women’s rights as equal to men’s. Ho claims that Iphigenia is a myth from the “ancient past” “demanding our generation write a new narrative for our times”, but he uses the story to tackle neither of the topics Goethe does, even though those topics are particularly relevant today.

All we get from Ho’s adaptation is a story told alternately in poetic language and jarringly colloquial teenspeak laced with four-letter words that wants to present the myth as important at the same time as it trivializes it. Ho has Iphigenia ask at one point, “Are the gods evil or are we?”, an extremely pertinent questions which Ho does not explore, but later has her flippantly remark about her brother that perhaps they can “Pray the gay away”.

We hear about “pouring libations” and “preparing the sacrifices” one moment and then hear about 2% milk, Cinnabon, bubble tea and  “Netflix and chill” the next. The Chorus overdoes trying to make a pointless pun on Pylades name and Pilates. Later Orestes and Pylades belabour a pun on “semen” and “seamen”. The colloquialisms and references to the banalities of 21st century life do nothing to enhance the play’s relevance. They simply have a trivializing effect on the subject matter as if Ho were afraid to present it too seriously.

The one time a contemporary reference seems to make some point in relation to the plot is when Pylades tells the Chorus that he was not allowed to give blood for a transfusion for his grandmother because he is gay. Otherwise, Ho’s adaptation of Iphigenia as “a new narrative for our times” seems to reveal nothing but the utter inanity of the modern day where it’s safer to be flip than serious.

Despite the text’s jaggedy level of discourse, Ho still wants the play to have an important message. This he does primarily by changing the Chorus from the Chorus of Greek Slave Women in Euripides to a one-woman Chorus representing the Taurian temple-women. Ho portrays this Taurian Chorus as disgruntled that Artemis should have literally dropped a new High Priestess into the temple from the sky to take charge of it when the Chorus, as she often states, has been serving there for “a millennia [sic]”.

Ho thus sets up a conflict between the native Taurians and the interloping foreign High-Priestess, but if he wants this to reflect colonialism of some kind, the metaphor doesn’t work. Iphigenia is made a High-Priestess among the Taurians by Artemis herself, the goddess the Taurians worship, so how exactly can the Chorus resent what her own goddess has done?

The up-to-date theme of the play that Ho completely ignores is the brutal xenophobia of the Taurians. He has Iphigenia say, “I’m trapped in a cycle of sacrifice – having been spared from one I now inflict it as a daily chore”. But he never examines the rationale for the Taurians’ view of foreigners nor, unlike Goethe, tries to find a resolution to this cycle.

Ho makes the theft of the statue of Artemis by Orestes and Pylades, though sanctioned by Apollo, into a grievous cultural theft by foreigners. Ho thus closes the play with the Chorus lamenting that she has seen this happen “over and over”, repeating the “and over” so many times that one sees why such needless repetition is called ad nauseam. By focussing on the Taurians as represented by the Chorus whose precious cultural artifact has been stolen, Ho seems to forget the Taurians’ bloodthirsty xenophobia which hardly makes them victims in inter-societal relations.

Despite all this, the cast under Jonathan Seinen’s measured direction give uniformly excellent performances. Foremost is Virgilia Griffith as Iphigenia. Griffith brings dignity to the highs and lows of Ho’s text by presenting Iphigenia as a complex character – haughty one moment, despairing the next – both amazed and appalled by the gods meddling in her life and that of her family.

As Orestes, Kwaku Okyere speaks vehemently but, except in one passage, does not really convey the torture of a person constantly pursued by the Furies – an external embodiment of his guilt. This is partly due to Ho’s text which despite its title oddly de-emphasizes the role of the Furies in Orestes life. In this Nicolas-François Guillard’s libretto for Gluck is far superior. We need to know that there is a desperately urgent reason for Orestes to steal the statue of Artemis that has nothing to do with plunder.

Nathaniel Hanula-James is convincing as Pylades, Orestes’ trust-worthy lover. For those who may not know the myth, it is not Ho’s idea to portray Orestes and Pylades as a gay couple. The two names were linked in antiquity and in the neo-classical period as a model homosexual couple faithful unto death. In his direction of  Gluck’s opera for Opera Atelier, Marshall Pynkoski was able to convey the depth of the youths’ relationship through their looks and embraces. Ho and Seinen, however, obviously think the contemporary audience needs more proof and so add silhouettes love-making and moaning and later dry-humping in case we were especially dim-witted.

Paula-Jean Prudat makes a devious, feline Chorus, who seems unable to express any emotion without a smirk. Prudat shows that the Chorus can barely conceal her disdain for the Greeks including Iphigenia. This generally comic characterization does make it difficult at the end when we are meant, for a change, to take what the Chorus says seriously.

Christine Ting-Huan Urquhart’s design is especially impressive, carefully positioning the story halfway between the ancient and modern. Live this would have been one of the grandest sets TPM has seen. On video it’s hard to appreciate that the play is even being performed in that theatre. Urquhart’s costumes, especially for Iphigenia as High-Priestess, are spectacular. She has taken the notion that large tassel necklaces have become the fashion for both men and women and makes it look so attractive that one wonders when they will actually come in style.

Director of photography Steve Haining has three cameras at his disposal but the results are not always successful. Scenes adjacent to each other switch from over-lit to under-lit to perfectly clear throughout the show. The camera dedicated to providing an overview of the whole stage, frequently cuts off the feet of the actors while allowing too much empty space above them. Haining’s two best ideas are to have the play begin with P.J. Prudat entering TPM from outside to establish that what we see is filmed theatre. Haining also has one camera move onto the stage to catch close-ups of the characters as well as make the action more dynamic as when Orestes and the Chorus wrestle over the statue.

As usual theatre on film is only a poor facsimile of of theatre live. In this case, I really would have wanted to hear how an audience reacted to Ho’s use of anachronisms and humour. Did they receive full laughter or groans? And did we care more for the characters being with them in person than when watching them on a screen? On the one hand I am delighted that a playwright as young a Ho is fascinated by Greek myth. On the other, I am sorry he feels he needs to jolly it up to be acceptable. Ho’s adaptation does make one want to see Euripides’ original. His play proves that knowing only Oedipus and Antigone gives a narrow view of ancient tragedy which, as in this play, need not end in death and exile. We have to thank Ho for reviving this generally obscure subject and we have to hope that classical theatre companies will eventually see that ancient tragedy is far more varied than we have been taught.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Virgilia Griffith, © 2022 Steve Haining; Kwaku Okyere, Nathaniel Hanula-James and Virgilia Griffith, © Dahlia Katz; Paula-Jean Prudat; Nathaniel Hanula-James and Kwaku Okyere. © 2022 Steve Haining.

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