Review: IPHIGENIA AND THE FURIES (On Taurian Land)

by Lynn on February 25, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Presented digitally on line from Saga Collectif, Architect Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille Digital Co-Production, on Feb. 25 and 26:

Written by Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho)

Adapted from Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides

Directed by Jonathan Seinen

Set and costumes designed by Christine Ting-Huan Urquhart

Director of Photography and Editor, Steve Haining

Original music and sound design, Heidi Chan

Lighting by Gareth Li

Cast: Virgilia Griffith

Nathaniel Hanula-James

Kwaku Okyere

Paula-Jean Prudat

A compelling play with contemporary implications created by a gifted playwright, director, creative team and cast.

The Story. Playwright Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho) has taken as the source of his play the Greek play, Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides.

Background. Iphigenia is a princess from the royal Greek House of Atreus. Her father was King Agamemnon. Her mother was Queen Clytemnestra. Her uncle (her father’s brother) was Menelaus, who was married to Helen. As sometimes happens in rocky marriages Helen was spirited away to Troy by her lover, Paris. The family honour was at stake so Agamemnon gathered his troops/sailors etc. to sail to Troy to get Helen back. The seas and the gods were not co-operating so the only solution to calm the seas and appease the gods was for Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the god Artemis (goddess of the hunt and wild animals). It looked like this would go ahead except at the last minute Artemis scooped up Iphigenia from the sacrificing alter and spirited her away to Taui, leaving in her place a deer, and the people actually thought that Iphigenia was sacrificed.  In Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho’s) version a pig was left instead to be slaughtered but the people still thought it was Iphigenia. (Is Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho) using subtext when he substitutes the deer for the pig?)

Iphigenia landed in Taui and was now a High Priestess responsible for sacrificing men who come to that country. Two Greek men come to Taui in search of a statue that one of the gods accidentally dropped and the god wants it back. Unbeknownst to Iphigenia one of the men is her brother Orestes. The other man is his lover Pylades,  

Iphigenia is aided in the sacrificing by Chorus who has been in Taui for millennia and thought she was in line to be the High Priestess, but Iphigenia got the job instead. As Iphigenia prepares to sacrifice these two men, she learns who they really are. She also learns that her mother Clytemnestra killed her father Agamemnon in revenge for Iphigenia’s death. And in continuing revenge-form, Orestes killed his mother for killing his father. And Helen? She’s still frolicking with her Troy-Boy, Paris.  

But Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho) has put his own spin on the play full of playful dialogue that sometimes sounds like classical poetry with contemporary twists, situation comedy, and generational implications.

The Production. A woman walks along the outside of Theatre Passe Muraille, holding an illuminated globe. She enters the theatre with it and puts it carefully on the floor at the base of a large pillar. This is Chorus (Paula-Jean Prudat). By this simple action director Jonathan Seinen has brought the outside world into the theatre. Chorus is soon joined by Iphigenia who has her own illuminated globe that she places at the base of another pillar. They are in the large, imposing Temple of Tauros getting ready to kill the two intruders.

Christine Ting-Huan Urquhart has designed a set that is stylish and impressive. Imposing pillars are upstage. The floor is shiny with thick black and white stripes fanning out. One wall is a jumble of bunched, white paper that makes an impressive statement. Christine Ting-Huan Urquhart’s costumes are equally compelling. Iphigenia (Virgilia Griffith) the High Priestess wears form-fitting sleek dresses that give her an imperial air. Her ‘killing’ garb is a glittering gold gown that shimmers. She wears a ‘fascinator’ of sorts in her hair that is a band of white that stands up around the crown of her head.

Chorus (Paula-Jean Prudat) is dressed in a more subdued manner but still notable. Chorus is dressed in mid-calf length pants and a sturdy two-toned coat. Earrings hang down and look like they form feathers down the front of the coat. It looks like some of the fabric might be fine animal skins. Chorus does the grunt work, the cleanup in the sacrificing ceremony. The two men—Orestes (an energetic, thoughtful Kwaku Okyere) and Pylades (accommodating and well played by Nathaniel Hanula-James) wear black pants and tops (when they aren’t stripped to their tight shorts in love-making) that would mark them as coming from Greece.  

Iphigenia is of royal birth who is now in a foreign country as a High Priestess. As Iphigenia, Virgilia Griffith is regal, has bearing from that royal upbringing and a life of privilege. She is not repressed in hiding her emotions; she swears liberally and with gusto. She is wily and haughty.

Chorus had been in Taui for millennia and thought she would have that job but lost it to Iphigenia who just landed there from elsewhere. As Chorus, Paula-Jean Prudat is measured, controlled and seemingly without rancor. At times Prudat plays for laughs, obviously directed that way, but there is a serious side to her. She does not make waves at being passed over. There is no plotting of revenge. There is a sad acceptance of her fate. And Chorus is perceptive because this situation, of being usurped by someone from another place happens over and over and over and……again. It’s one of the most chilling, dramatic parts of this production.

Usually the lines separating the actor from the part is clear. But in Iphigenia and the Furies (On Taurian Land) deliberately blurs those lines.  In life Chorus is played beautifully by Paula-Jean Prudat who is Métis-Cree. Iphigenia is also played beautifully by Virgilia Griffith by is Black. Ordinarily such reference to ethnicity should not matter. But playwright Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho) and his gifted director Jonathan Seinen are making cultural references to appropriation, colonization and class distinction, and other aspects of people coming from elsewhere taking over—even in a small way—from the people who have been there for millennia. The result is a play that’s rich in subtext and detail with lots to think about.

Comment.  I saw this play live in an earlier iteration two years ago. Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho) has added more details and dialogue. He has said he wondered what it would be like to explore this play with a cast of people of colour. Ordinarily that would be part of their rehearsal process. But there are references that would resonate with an audience when they saw the play.  

Playwright Ho Ha Kei (Jeff Ho) has said that over the last two years in the pandemic, he has had a chance to deepen the play. He has said that he and the cast could delve into questions of identity. A reference is chilling. Iphigenia says that the Greeks always felt the Taurians were barbaric, tribal, when they studied them in history. She says: “All these words we use to strip humans of being human.” We can name all sorts of people’s who have been called that, usually by some conquering people who think lesser of the people they are conquering.

The dialogue dazzles with hip references. Iphigenia refers to her father Agamemnon as “Daddy Agi”. The swearing is very contemporary. Orestes and his lover Pylades are the two strangers who have come there to steal the statue. Playwright Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho) references how gays are perceived in contemporary times; the relationship is beautifully encapsulated by Pylades who feels he will only be a footnote in Orestes story.

The endless revenge for past transgressions continues when we are told that Clytemnestra murdered her husband Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia. Then Orestes gets revenge by killing Clytemnestra. It’s a play that makes many contemporary references by using an ancient Greek story. And the production beautifully explores that as well.

Of course I would love to have seen this live again, but I thought they did a terrific job bringing it to life digitally. Jonathan Seinen has such a clear, theatrical vision that translates in the camera angles, arial shots and close-ups. Kudos to Steve Haining, director of photography. The camera work served the play and didn’t detract with fancy foot-work.

If I have a regret, it’s that the run is so short.

Produced by Saga Collectif, Architect Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille Digital Co-Production.

Play:  Feb. 25 and 26

Running time: 90 minutes.

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