Myth and Reality

The Alley's Greeks is grander in notion than in execution

In early February, Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd appeared on Channel 8's Weeknight Edition with Ernie Manouse touting the Alley's then-upcoming production of John Burton and Kenneth Cavander's 1981 epic The Greeks as the theatrical equivalent of George Lucas's Star Wars. Murder, war and revenge, went his reasoning, all have enormous appeal for everyone, from seven-year-olds to their grandparents. What Boyd left out of his equation was The Greeks's salacity, a characteristic that only briefly surfaced in Star Wars and an element that is intensely present in his first half of the Alley's ten-play series.

Long a staple in ambitious university programs, The Greeks was originally commissioned by England's Royal Shakespeare Company in order to elicit a more contemporary feel for the ten mythic dramas. With its 36 actors, yards of costuming and massive rehearsal commitment, the production carries a certain grandeur, and it's heartening to find the Alley mustering up the ambition to produce such an epic. The celebrated million dollars that was poured into the production went for tasty rarities: an original musical score and live musicians for each performance, a chorus of dancers and one of Kevin Rigdon's luscious set and lighting designs.

In terms of first impact, the money seems well spent. The show is amazingly beautiful: Sepia burnished panels cover the stage and a skene, a traditional Greek set piece that serves as an all-purpose palace entrance with a giant sliding door, sits upstage. Behind the skene's door is a square rolling platform that serves as Achilles's tent, Andromache's chariot and Agamemnon's ship during the course of the evening. Tender wisps of smoke illuminate the orchestra as the audience sits down, and one by one, the chorus appears to tell stories. A partial mask hangs, visible through the skene's door -- an icon of the gods and their power over mortals.

Iphigenia at Aulis, however, opens part one with a taste of the production's jarringly uneven qualities. One of Euripides's less-celebrated plays, the story has often been criticized for the title character's abrupt change of heart. Set in a Greek camp at Aulis, the action is preceded by the kidnapping of Helen -- the action that launched the Greeks' war against the Trojans. Faced with a windless sea, Agamemnon, a Greek general and Helen's brother-in-law, is charged with the task of rescuing the world's most beautiful woman and regaining Greece's honor. As played by James Black, Agamemnon is, appropriately, an empty and war-driven weakling, ruled by the moment and by his inability to make noble choices. Asked by the goddess Artemis to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in order to provide his ships with wind, he makes plans to do so.

What is wrong with this Iphigenia indicates what's gone wrong -- in some cases terribly wrong -- with the Alley's production of The Greeks in general. In painting the broad framework of the story, the company has lost sight of the various plays' nuances and poetry. In Cavander's 1973 translation of Iphigenia, Agamemnon reconsiders his decision to slay his daughter and in that moment offers a misdirected tenderness for Iphigenia -- the model of chaste purity. There are no such delicacies in this production. Instead of being innocently noble and self-righteous, Debra Eisenstadt's Iphigenia is coarse and flirtatious. She handles her father with a strange roughness, even cradling his arm underneath her breast. Each of the play's characters, in fact, has been made into a cartoon of lust.

Strange, too, that the chorus of dancers and singers winds around Iphigenia in patterns that would be more appropriate for a Polynesian luau, and that their tie-dyed yellow and orange gowns are obscenely set off with a crest of showgirl flowers in their hair. In his attempt to make the chorus an integral, living part of the plays, Boyd has created a spectacle so diffuse that it's often difficult to find the dwindling thread of story. It doesn't help that, in total, the plays lack the lyrical language one expects from the Greeks. The sparse nature of Cavander's translation creates a more fluid narrative, but ultimately lacks passion. There are no memorable lines. Worse in terms of stagecraft, when the three-hour extravaganza is finished, few moments linger in the memory. Impressions of the production slip away as easily as if it were a confectionary musical.

The saving grace in Iphigenia is Elizabeth Heflin's Clytemnestra. Regal in her bearing and believable in her appeals to the callous Agamemnon, Heflin offers a brief respite from the quality of flat caricature that pervades this introductory play. It isn't quite enough to counter the paucity of emotion in the rest of the production, however, and by the end of the evening, Heflin's performance, too, is reduced to parody.

The program notes point out that Achilles, the play that follows Iphigenia, is the Alley's version of Cavander and Barton's version, based on the original texts from Homer's Iliad. Such convoluted lineage gives one pause. Still, hope springs up when Thetis, a sea nymph, appears to the accompaniment of wonderfully sparkling chimes. Clad in a semi-transparent body stocking, Jean Arbeiter captivatingly prances about her son Achilles, who cannot see her. In one brief moment, it's possible to see what this production could have been -- utterly engaging and delightful.

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