Toys In The Attic

Twin Cities Greek revival continues, this time with puppets

Ten Thousand Things, frequently written about in these pages, shocks its latest audiences with this show, which represents a full-tilt embrace of Broadway-style production values. No expense has been spared for lavish, high-tech special effects, dry ice, pyrotechnics, a full-scale orchestra, and a cast of more than a hundred.

Yes, I'm kidding. But the company has introduced a wrinkle: This Iphigenia includes the contribution of New York puppeteer Theodora Skipitares, who also directs. In a strikingly eerie fusion of acting and puppetry, the veiled players have their movements duplicated by mid-sized puppets strapped to the front of their bodies. More typical of a Ten Thousand Things show is this play's very minimal set and lighting, the latter provided by whatever room the play happens to be staged in. It's a distinctive and engrossing experience, largely due to the quality of the cast and their grasp of Euripides' painfully dark tragedy.

Sometimes a wooden performance is just the ticket: Two actors and a puppet from "Iphigenia"
Peter Vitale
Sometimes a wooden performance is just the ticket: Two actors and a puppet from "Iphigenia"

When things start out, the Greek king Agamemnon is hanging fire waiting for winds to propel his ships so he can start the Trojan War. Turns out, however, that the king's earlier slaying of a deer has pissed off the goddess Artemis, who will continue to stymie his plans unless he sacrifices his oldest daughter. Agamemnon lures Iphigenia and her mother to his war camp with a contrived story about a marriage to Achilles. As soon as he sends for them, Agamemnon realizes what an awful idea he has come up with, and immediately regrets it.

And so it goes. Nothing like parental betrayal to pitch an audience into an emotional maelstrom, and this particular staging will get you there. Luverne Seifert as Agamemnon gives a strong and vocal performance, his big frame stalking behind an expressionless effigy of himself, nicely fostering all sorts of thoughts about Platonic forms, surfaces, and ideals.

But I digress. I attended a performance of this show last week at an all-women substance-abuse recovery center, and any doubts about whether the play was reaching its audience were assuaged when I saw the Kleenex box getting passed around and witnessed one woman so overcome with emotion that she had to leave the room.

This isn't to say there aren't some semi-light moments. Casey Grieg's Achilles earns laughs when he boasts, "Thousands of girls pursue me all the time," and Kris Nelson's Dorf-like outfit as an elderly slave provokes some perhaps unintended tittering. But as the hour proceeds, it's clear that this cast has tightened around the material and come to terms with the unorthodoxy of the puppets that transmit their performances. Carena Crowell, in the title role, is the only actor who performs largely without a puppet, which gives her more opportunities to shine. She radiates, in fact, when Iphigenia comes to accept her sacrificial role--it's a bitter and chilling depiction of a child's loyalty. Throughout, Mike Croswell's music provides a driving and churning score that ably matches the buildup to the insanity that transpires by the end.

But is this a show that, shall we say, pays out on the ticket price? It depends. Ten Thousand Things' artistic director Michelle Hensley's strategy has always been to blow the budget on high-quality actors. Here the result is a smart, polished cast that provides a moving and capable take on this classic drama. In its own fashion, the current Oedipus at the Guthrie represents a similar tactic (it's elegant and expensive-looking, but stripped down in relative terms). This approach favors investigation and immediacy, rather than the opportunities for easier payout afforded by more traditional theater. During its run in Minneapolis, the ratio of prison/public Iphigenia performances to paid performances is a neat two-to-one. It appears that raking in the big bucks has, in this case, taken a back seat to communicating with audiences (and then, secondly, theatergoers). And if you can get through it without a couple of heavy looks back at the Greek tragedy you call your own life, then, pal, you haven't got a pulse.

 
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