Ho Ka Kei’s take on the last canonical part of the story of the House of Atreus; Iphigenia and the Furies (on Taurian Land) opened last night at the Aki Studio in a production directed by Jonathan Seinen. It’s a very funny and very thought provoking take on the story that will likely be best known to opera goers as the plot of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. I want to start with the three questions that the playwright set out to answer:
- What does it mean for mainly POC’s and marginalized folks to be taking this tale on?
- What do we gain/ what do we lose/ what may feel erased/ what is truly universal about this tale or is that an assumption due to its status in the canon?
- When we end a cycle, say a cycle of vengeance, what other cycles emerge?
This interests me especially because I’m not in any real sense a marginalized person. Indeed I’m almost “archetypically” of the group that has made the classical canon its own; i.e a white male with a traditional classical education(1).
So how does Ho Ka Kei’s work address these questions? Really in two parts; which is quite clever for a piece that only runs about 65 minutes. For maybe 55 minutes we get an idiosyncratic and very funny take on the story. Iphigenia (Virgilia Griffith) hilariously recounts her dysfunctional childhood as the disposable daughter of Aggy and Clem. Orestes (Thomas Olajide) and Pylades (Augusto Bitter) are an outrageously camp, and very physical, pair of lovers. There’s no attempt to deal with the issues of Greek male/male relationships as mediated by later Western notions of appropriate male/male behaviour(2). What we get is a very modern “homosexuality”. Then there’s Chorus (PJ Prudat); the nameless, blood thirsty, and entirely Taurian, assistant priestess who tries to get Iphigenia to get on with topping the captives while running off for coffee and getting generally down on the top jobs going to foreigners parachuted in by Olympus HQ.
It’s colloquial, it’s raunchy, the comic timing is exquisite. Iphigenia’s cunning plan to get the boys and the statue that they have come to claim/steal to the beach, and so away, is to declare that they are impure because of butt sex and need to be purified in the ocean. A much interrupted and hilarious, “exorcism” follows. Chorus gets more and more flouncily exasperated at Iphigenia’s procrastination. The boys barely (in both senses of the word) restrain themselves from shagging each other at every opportunity. One wonders how and when the three questions mentioned above will ever be answered.
Then everything changes. The central issue is the statue which Orestes believes he has to “restore” to Apollo but which is central to Taurian self identity. For Orestes it’s the key to ending his pursuit by the Furies or, in other words, ending the cycle of killing and revenge that started at Aulis. For Chorus it’s the loss of cultural identity to Greeks who don’t even recognise the Taurians as people. In a short shockingly violent scene we see Orestes tear the statue from Chorus watched by an increasingly uncomfortable Pylades and Iphigenia. The Greeks head for home complete with statue. Chorus is left alone on the stage repeating “and over and over and over…” until the lights go down. It’s really quite shocking, as it should be, especially given the tone of what’s gone before.
The issue of Greeks (us, mainstream white folk) vs barbarians (everyone else) is subverted because Orestes and Iphigenia are played by POC while Chorus is white. The outcome is the same as ever though. The needs of “us” transcend the cultural identity of the “other” (pipelines anyone?). The end of one cycle of violence is merely the beginning of another, perhaps more intractable, one. There are reasons why a story like this still speaks to us after 2,500 years but those reasons perhaps change over time and depend on the audience. Euripides could make some pretty safe assumptions about his audience and how they would react. Can we?
This piece packs a lot into an hour. It’s very well acted and very funny but it’s far more than that. Once again the Aki Studio hosts seriously thought provoking theatre. Iphigenia and the Furies (on Taurian Land) runs until January 20th.
(1) Who gets royally pissed off when, for instance, Marshall Pynkoski decides he needs to lecture his audience on the Aeneas legend because “nobody reads the Aeneid anymore”
(2) You’ll need something like Davidson, James N (2008), The Greeks and Greek Love: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece for that
Photo credits: Dahlia Katz
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