Iph... Only

The Tir Ná nÓg Theatre Company shines in an updated version of an old play.

Eighteen months ago, no one could have predicted that the Denver Center/Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Tantalus would spawn any lingering offspring. Because the Trojan War marathon was often referred to as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it made sense that locals wouldn't clamor for more mythology until they'd crossed over to the Great Beyond.

However, Tir Ná nÓg, which bills itself as Denver's "sole Celtic theater group," has decided to ride the waves of success instead of being swamped by them: The local community theater troupe is presenting the regional premiere of Iph..., an updated version of Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis -- that, not coincidentally, was penned by Tantalus dramaturge Colin Teevan. Smartly directed by Patrick M. Balai, the production proves that small-scale versions of ancient myths can be just as potent as lavish ones.

Set in and around a contemporary Belfast shipyard, the retelling evokes the Irish Troubles from the moment the word "revenge" is spoken. A half-dozen leading characters are joined by a six-member chorus of Belfast schoolgirls, whose comments about Greece's feud with Troy echo Northern Ireland's centuries-old conflicts: "I'd die for Greece," says one girl, who looks as though she's no older than fourteen. "Me, too," her friend quickly agrees. "It's the utter."

But while the ancient and modern conflicts correspond well enough, Teevan's play doesn't necessarily favor one side over the other. In the best tradition of Greek myths, it examines the tragic fallout that occurs when people choose one course of action over another -- in this case, Agamemnon's choice to pursue a warlike cause results in the sacrifice of his daughter, Iphgeneia. (In Teevan's play, the spelling of the characters' names differs slightly from commonly used English versions.)

At first, Teevan doesn't seem to place enough emphasis on the motives that cause Agamemnon to "throat cut" his child: The Greeks' mission to rescue the abducted Helen is rarely talked about, and the characters seem obsessed with smallish arguing instead of epic action. Gradually, though, the play's focus on peripheral matters points up the petty motives that lead to war, which doesn't sound like such a lofty enterprise once the killing starts. Led by some striking performances, Balai and company also convey the notion that revenge is impossible to achieve when each side thinks its cause is more just than the other's.

Tony Cohen is a smoldering, volcanic presence as Agamemnon. Grounded and centered from his first entrance, he sometimes looks so taut with fury that the other actors appear to unconsciously keep an arm's length away from him. He assumes a longshoreman's plainspoken ways when responding to his long-winded brother's arguments ("With a clever word or two, you make your own doubleness seem right; you always do"), and he plumbs the depths of fatherly grief when confronting Iphigeneia at the moment of sacrifice ("Both you and I must give our all for the freedom of our homeland," he says). As the sacrificial daughter, Heather Nicholson is by turns exuberant, disillusioned and resigned. She faces her fate as calmly as did her counterpart in Tantalus, but adds a subtly rebellious twist -- one that resonates all the more as played against the gritty Belfast backdrop -- when she wonders, "What have I done to Helen? How can my death help?" Along with Cohen and the chorus, Nicholson invests the penultimate scene, which is beautifully staged by Balai, with sublime feeling. Martin McGovern, Darrin Ray, Paula Jayne and Brian McManus lend distinctive touches to their portrayals. And Kelley Wade-Zobel, Melinda Jaz, Sarah Choszczyk, Tara M.E. Thompson, Courtney Cochetas and Angela R. Light are convincing as a sextet of teens steeped in bloodshed and indifferent to its aftermath.

In a note that appears in the program, Balai emphasizes two quotations: One, from a mural in East Belfast, reads, "For as long as one hundred of us remain alive, we shall never in any way consent to submit...for it's not for glory we fight, but for freedom alone, which no man loses but his life." The other, which is spoken by a character in Teevan's play, asks simply, "When will we have blood enough?" Appropriately enough, Tir Ná nÓg's production doesn't champion one idea over the other; but just as tragically, its final image suggests that both ideas will be with us for some time to come.

 
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