Sunday, August 16, 2009

An afternoon with the Atrides

If you are in northern New Mexico and you have in interest in (or, in my case, passion for) Greek mythology, Greek tragedies, or simply live theatre, I commend Iphigenia and Other Daughters by Ellen McLaughlin to you. There are two more performances: Friday, August 21, at 8 pm and Saturday, August 22, at 3 pm. It is playing at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe, 555 Camino de la Familia, near the rail station. You may order tickets at Umbrella Hat Productions.

Penny Lynn White and Natasha Warner
(Clytemnestra and Iphigenia)
Courtesy of Umbrella Hat Productions website

Why am I recommending it? Well....

Greek mythology is personal for me.

As a child I devoured books on mythology. This was probably around the 4th through 6th grade, possibly sooner. Then I took four years of Latin in high school. I wept when translating scenes from the Aeneid. Decades later I translated one of those scenes from Latin to Spanish to share with a Spanish tutor, and I cried again. The whole matter of Troy, and the story of the house of Atreus, and the adventures of Aeneas somehow touch me deeply. I let the cathartic nature of classical tragedy intermingle with whatever in my own life moves me. One afternoon in Berkeley I watched the Shotgun Players' production of Troilus and Cressida and bawled like a baby. One summer I read all the extant Greek tragedies. Recently I caught the production of Antigone at the Vortex in Albuquerque. I have watched several movies of these classic tales, caught the Oresteia at Berkeley Rep the year they initiated their new theatre, and every other production I could find. On some level I know these people and I feel strongly about them.

So today Bill and I drove up to Santa Fe to see Iphigenia and Other Daughters, having been lured into this adventure by the young actor who played Iphigenia and is also Umbrella Hat's director of outreach. She and her colleague (Ashlynn?) were touting the play at the Plaza in Santa Fe last Saturday and at the mention of Greek tragedy my ears perked up. I would not miss an opportunity for this and Yes, it was possible.

It was fun picking up our tickets and saying, "See, we told you we'd come see it!" And see it we did.

It was a simple set with few props. At the center was a large sandbox used effectively in a variety of interactions between the characters and the earth. A chorus of maidens sang, provided movement, and finally spoke in one of the later scenes. Costumes, props, and language played with time, linking Ancient Greece with nearer periods, resonating with our own day.

The play speaks to human vulnerability and the evils of which we are capable. Orestes, the only male figure, enters late in the story. This is a tale of society's treatment and mistreatment of women, though Orestes is eloquent on the brutalizing of men as well. Of course, in the House of Atreus, there are complex interactions in family roles so we see the ways we are defined, damaged, and restricted by the spots we occupy in our family histories. Humor and horror mingle in the dialogue between the insane Electra, haunted by her father's murder and driven to bear witness to it, and her sister Chrysothemis, the classic "middle child" who is invisible, dutiful, sensible, and ordinary.

There is so much pain in the tale with even more painful consequences. Everyone here is "damaged goods," seriously damaged goods. The cycle seems endless as we are watching the actions of the great-great-grandchildren of Tantalus who started it all. Serving one's children as dishes to the gods takes many forms. Consider how many ways we sacrifice new generations to war and greed in our own day. The "drug" of war comes through in multiple ways and I think of Chris Hedges' book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. Scott Thomas, the actor who plays Orestes, mentioned the drug of war when we chatted with him after the play.

Killing one's relatives truly "ran in the family." After generations of violence the characters and the audience alike yearn for resolution and peace. Orestes is finally delivered from the Furies and the way McLaughlin brings story elements together is moving and beautiful, with siblings offering each other deliverance and healing.

It was a joy to be able to meet and talk with Warner, Lynn White, Thomas, and Anna O'Donoghue (who played Chrysothemis) after the play and also Ethan Heard who directed. The energy of the people connected with this play was a shot in the arm and reminded my why I love live drama so much.

We learned that McLaughlin, the playwright, came out and worked with them. The program also informed us that she created the role of the Angel in Tony Kushner's Angels in America. I have ordered a copy of this and other dramas in McLaughlin's book The Greek Plays so I can savor the language (and get to know her work better).

For more background on Umbrella Hat Productions and their debut in Santa Fe for the 2009 Santa Fe Theatre Festival, check out Jeffrey Laing's article at

Detail of a wall painting:
Iphigenia. 1st century A. D.,
Carnuntum. Klagenfurt Landesmuseum.
(Image: Haines Brown, "Images from History," 6.viii.00

A tip of the hat to the entire cast and crew for the pleasure of this production. I'm already wondering if I can squeeze in another drive to Santa Fe. I'd love to see it a second time. I was saddened that the theatre was not full, so I hope this encourages some folks to fill those seats and enjoy!

--the BB

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