Although I am familiar with Greek mythology and have read some of the Greek tragedies, until this past Friday (September 16, 2011) the only time I could remember seeing Greek drama performed was during the closing credits of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode where Principle Snyder had forced Buffy, Willow and Xander to participate in Sunnydale High’s talent show as a punishment for their “delinquent” attitudes. Buffy and friends picked acting for their talent because they had no known performance talents and thought acting a scene from Greek drama would be easy. They were of course wrong with hilarious consequences. Acting, as they learned through great embarrassment, is not as easy as it looks when done by untalented actors. Fortunately for us Utah theatre goers, the actors appearing in the Classical Greek Theatre Festival’s (CGTF) latest production of Iphigenia in Tauris are all talented actors.
I got the assignment to review this show earlier in the month and was excited for the opportunity, but as I ventured to Westminster College to see the show, I encountered several obstacles and annoyances. The poor weather made driving to the campus slower than usual, and then it took me a while to find a place to park without a pass. Next it was an ordeal to find where the Richer Commons was since few people I asked knew where it was. When I found it, I learned that the show had been moved from Richer Commons (an outdoor area) to the Jewett Center due to the earlier rain fall which had left the entire campus grounds damp and soggy. All the running around left me sweaty and thirsty (being as I’m a large man) and it took time to find a drinking fountain before picking up my ticket and getting in back of a very large line to get into the theatre. When finally I reached the theatre door, I was disappointed to learn that they had run out of programs. The idea of trying to write a proper review (not that I’m pretending I ever write proper reviews anyway) without a program was not a pleasant one to me. I made a stink to the ushers about it but there was nothing they could do. Fortunately a kind person in the front row (where I chose to sit) was kind enough o give me their program. I was happy there are people out there willing to bestow kindness upon a cranky, grumbling and no doubt bothersome reviewer. Before the show started, Jim Svendsen (CGTF Artistic Director and Dramaturge) made a brief speech to the nearly full crowd, and apologized for the rain having moved the show from the original venue. He went on to say that someone must’ve angered Zeus, compelling the high god to cause the rain and asked who it was. I raised my hand, realizing it must’ve been me.
Finally, after all that much ado about nothing, the play began and it was amazing. As I said earlier, the cast of Iphigenia in Tauris are a talented young bunch. All of them seem to relish bringing this classic play by Euripides (regarded today as the originator of modern dramatic sensibility) to life. Lexie Stuivenvolt Allen played our lead heroine Iphigenia and despite a weak start with her opening monologue Ms. Allen quickly picked up steam during her first song (that’s right this show is a musical!) and never looked back. She did a good job of displaying the character’s deep sense of loss and isolation. You could see the pain in her eyes as she lamented the family and country she had left behind in her exile to Tauris.
The Chorus was a true delight to watch on stage. When reading a Greek drama, the Chorus can seem stilted and boring, even superfluous, but this group of five young ladies (Elise Groves, Krystal Kennedy, Krista Niederjohn, Mandi Titcomb and Jordan Saxton) was far from stilted, boring or superfluous. Thanks in part to the powerful and haunting music (composed by Ricklen Nobis) and the brilliant choreography (by William Richardson) combined with their natural charismas, the members of this show’s Greek chorus were a constant source of entertainment and energy all through the both solemn and humorous play. Although all the members of the Chorus had moments where they stood out individually, Elise Groves really got a chance to shine as near the end of the show she portrayed the goddess Athena (a role she apparently first played back in the fifth grade) high atop the temple roof wearing a warrior’s helmet and bearing an impressive spear with the other four Chorus members holding out the amazingly long trains of her divine robes.
Wyatt McNeil and Braden Smith both did a fine job as young Greek adventurers Orestes and Pylades respectively. As Orestes, McNeil got to say perhaps the funniest line in the play when Iphigenia (his sister, but unknown to him at the time) is questioning him about his home in Greece prior to his execution in the Temple of Tauris. Tired of her questions he says, “Answering questions is of no interest to a man about to die.” Later, Iphigenia had her own laughter inducing line when, after she has learned Orestes is her brother and she is plotting with him and Plyades on how to flee back to Greece she says to her brother after he suggests they murder Thoas the King of Tauris in order to escape, “It’s terrible for guests to murder their host.”
Stealing the show in two different scenes were Ryon J. Sharette as the Herdsman and Bijan J. Hosseini as the Messenger. Both got to tell big stories about actions that happened off stage which their characters had witnessed and both actors used their talent and experience to fully engage the audience in their animated and greatly entertaining storytelling. Mr. Hosseini—like the true professional he is—even managed to fight through a series of wardrobe problems when his cape both nearly strangled him and blinded him and his belt fell off during his frantic and expressive movements on stage. He didn’t miss a beat.
Those wardrobe incidents aside, I must tell you that the costumes (designed by Phillip Lowe) where wonderful and really lent to the feeling of an ancient adventurous world now lost to us except through these sort of plays and stories.
I should also mention Jared Thomson who played King Thoas. His performance teetered on the brink of being over the top with his loud Disney cartoon villain sounding voice, maniacal laughter and large highly theatrical gestures, and with his mask and cape he reminded me of a professional wrestling bad guy from the late 80’s. But all of that was perfect for his evil character and the audience really seemed to get a kick out of his performance, though being in the front row I was worried about his tendency to spit while shouting… especially when most of his lines were shouted!
Iphigenia in Tauris was expertly directed by Anne Stewart Mark and will be touring around the state in the weeks to come. Next it will move to the Red Butte amphitheater on the 17th and 18th, 24th and 25th, and does two days in there at the BYU and Weber, respectively. The Classic Greek Theatre Festival has been around for 40 years and is the longest running and only touring Greek classic festival in the nation. This is their first year at Westminster after previously calling the University of Utah their home since the company was founded back in 1971. If you have not seen Greek drama performed live, Iphigenia in Tauris is a great one to start with.