Greek Tragedy Gets a Heroic Rescue

04/12/2010 4:00 AM |

Rescue Me walks a treacherous line between bringing an ancient Greek tragedy back from the brink and thrusting it to its death. The play on which it's based, Euripides' Iphigenia in Tauris, after all, has become even more obscure than its narrative precursor, Iphigenia in Aulis, as is explained in the prologue to Ma-Yi Theater Company's radical and riveting staging of Michi Barall's new adaptation. In fact, Rescue Me (at the Ohio Theater through April 18) begins with the goddess Artemis (a cannily cast David Greenspan) explaining that "there's a very famous play called Iphigenia in Aulis." S/he continues: "That's an altogether different play from the one you are about to see."

By this point, though, most plays already seem very different from the one you're about to see, with its contemporary language and Off-Off-Broadway-meets-Julie Taymor aesthetic. Greenspan delivers these opening lines standing at the foot of a modernist purple staircase to nowhere in a black suit, cueing a video projection map of Tauris on the Black Sea with an iPhone-like clicker, as two columns of televisions on either side of the set display more or less related images. (Before the performance begins the TVs play footage of blue, partly cloudy skies with an incongruous soundtrack of sheep bleats.) In its attempt to revive a rarely produced Greek tragedy, Rescue Me moves agilely between reverence and parody. The production's ability to, more often than not, convey the significance of Euripides' text without shying away from it or becoming dryly didactic is its greatest strength.

And there certainly are times when Barall resorts too frequently to fourth wall-smashing and making characters narrate the story to the audience (and call to the production manager Kat West to scrap entire scenes) rather than act it out. Getting through Euripides' play, in these sections, seems more a chore than something worthwhile, interesting or, gods forbid, fun. But at its best moments, which are many, this production never loses sight of the significance of Iphigenia's story, or its place in the genealogical web of Greek mythology. Instead, it layers in bright, sugary-sweet pop culture allusions, choreography and visual elements that generally accentuate the original's themes rather than smothering them in postmodern irony.

So, briefly: Artemis saved Iphigenia (the excellent Jennifer Ikeda) from being sacrificed by her father Agamemnon and brought her from Athens to a temple in provincial backwater Tauris, where she sacrifices Greeks to the goddess with the help of her assistants Sandra and Lydia (Oni Monifa Renee Brown and Katherine Partington), and rejects the constant marriage proposals of local king Thoas (Leon Ingulsrud). She holds out hope that she'll be saved by her brother Orestes (Julian Barnett, who also choreographed) who arrives on Tauris with his homosocial buddy Pylades (Ryan King) as the play opens to steal a statue of Artemis, and who in the intervening years has killed their mother, Clytemnestra, after she killed their father thinking that he had sacrificed their daughter. After detailing these and more family follies to Thoas, Iph (as she's nicknamed here), exasperated, concludes: "We're a family of tricksters and cannibal sacrificers. And the only reason I'm here is because my own father tricked me in order to make me a human sacrifice. Who does that!?" These ancient stories, in other words, are at once darkly, hilariously arcane and perversely timeless. (If only the humorless blockbuster remake Clash of the Titans had understood the inherent hilarity of its grave origins.)

Along with its backhanded, winking faith to the often absurdly shocking logic of Greek myth, Rescue Me playfully (post)modernizes Iph's plight. Costume designer Maiko Matushima does away with the togas: the female actors wear flowing, striped dresses; Pylades is a contemporary military man in camo; and Thoas, in what is perhaps the only unconvincing pop pun, is a pink-clad Elvis impersonator. This affords the least successful musical moments, but Greenspan's brief interpolation of "Show Me The Way To Go Home" hits the right note. Similarly, Barnett's choreography for several danced segments is excellent, particularly the touching romantic tumble between Orestes and Pylades. The ambitious production design moves at a swift, agile pace when it needs to, but never feels chaotic or cluttered, leaving the excellent cast the requisite room to grapple with Euripides' fascinating text. (A mid-play pause even features a very interesting Q&A session with a Classics scholar.)

Beyond the fucked up family dynamics at its center, Rescue Me packs much apt subtext. Tensions between the gossiping, scenester-y cosmopolitans of Athens and the backwards Tauri townies figures as a clever cross-class comedy. Iph's years spent in isolated servitude are repeatedly likened to the life of an indentured servant or political refugee. Athenians in Tauris ceaselessly enumerate the disparities between civilization and wilderness, often with a longing that reminds of Miranda and her marauded father Prospero in The Tempest on their island daydreaming of Venice. Iph's mad thirst for news of the Greek elite suggests the cult of political scandal that increasingly dominates Western democratic discourse. This last theme becomes especially clear in the finale, which we watch with Thoas on CNN via the TV columns. Asking audiences to focus on video content often causes narrative momentum to flicker and fizzle out, but here the hilarious broadcast works perfectly—if only Peter Sellars had been so creative with the giant TV claw that served as the set for his loathsome Othello for the Public last year. Unlike that production, Ma-Yi's Rescue Me transmits the significance of its narrative without becoming its hostage. It's the all too rare creative and liberal adaptation of Greek tragedy after which you will neither need to reread the original, nor be rescued from the reinterpretation.

(photo credit: Brian Barenio)