Many contemporary adaptations of Greek tragedies, such as Jean Anouilh's Antigone, effectively use ancient myths to address modern problems. In fact, when it was first produced in 1944, the French dramatist's modern-dress tale about a woman who defies her uncle's edict outlawing the burial of her dead brother managed to resonate with Nazi sympathizers as well as Resistance leaders. That's probably because Anouilh retained the basic structure of Greek drama as well as the essential flavor of the Athenian poet's immortal dialogue.
Would that the same could be said about Ellen McLaughlin's Iphigenia and Other Daughters, a 75-minute, intermissionless work being presented by the Bug Theatre Company. McLaughlin's piece--a series of scenes from Euripides's Iphigenia in Aulis, Iphigenia in Tauris and Sophocles's Electra --is a modern retelling, "from the women's perspective," of the curses that plagued the House of Atreus. But even though the production is smartly designed, inventively staged by director Matthew Howard and competently acted by a cast of seven women and one man (plus two women whose recorded voices supply narration between acts), the play is riddled with ridiculous one-liners and inane episodes. Some of those are intended as wry commentary, but most are simply ludicrous in the context of McLaughlin's otherwise high-minded drama.
No sooner are we captivated by the play's foreboding, majestic prologue, for instance, than Clytemnestra (McPherson Horle) starts ranting about the "hopped-up horny bastards" in her husband Agamemnon's army. Forced to obey his wish to kill their daughter, Iphigenia (Lisa Morgan), in order to gain favor with the gods, Clytemnestra says, "I'm a queen, she's a princess, but these things have no meaning here"--and promptly kneels and pants like a puppy while her waiflike daughter strides up a ramp to her sacrificial demise. A few minutes later, Clytemnestra tells us, "I stand in a tree and reach between my legs, and there is an egg." She says something about the egg having been the product of her involvement with a swan and declares that the next egg she laid was a "tortured walnut," which, naturally, was her son, Orestes (Brantley Dunaway).
But before said walnut (clad in a World War One helmet) shows up to avenge his father's death, Clytemnestra's other daughter, Electra (Donna Morrison), tumbles onto the stage and tells us she's a "mongrel bitch howling at the moon and stars." To prove her point, she lets out a hearty wail. She also tells her mother that she's furious at her for having murdered Agamemnon and spews a few epithets such as "Liar! Filth! Butcher!" in Clytemnestra's general direction--to which the huffy matron replies, "Have you no originality?" Then another daughter, Chrysothemis (Holly Allen), saunters in dressed in a gardener's outfit and tends to a small plot of earth near the edge of the stage (the same dirt Electra stares at when she tells us that, in the end, "women will live in the ground like manure"). By the time Clytemnestra tells Electra that she's going to wall her up "in a basement or attic somewhere and let you shit yourself," it's difficult to take McLaughlin's endeavor seriously. And it becomes well-nigh impossible when Electra tells Orestes that she's going to use an urn of cremated human remains to make "filler for bad piecrust."
Even so, Howard and the actors manage to imbue several episodes with profound feeling and admirable artistry. Horle is a commanding, regal presence who's most convincing when she recalls the memory of murdering her husband: "I could see what I looked like in his open eyes as I brought the knife down," she says. As Electra, Morrison summons an interesting mixture of familial contempt and unresolved outrage. Although Dunaway frequently internalizes what should be a public, civic debate, he manages to rise to the occasion near play's end. And both Morgan and Allen deliver graceful, understated and poetic portrayals as the pair of "good" daughters.
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All in all, though, while McLaughlin is certainly free to construct her version of these myths, you get the feeling that she ought to go ahead and do just that--and in the process, avoid enlisting Euripides and Sophocles as her unwitting, and decidedly undeserving, collaborators.
Iphigenia and Other Daughters, through May 8 at the Bug Performance and Media Arts Center, 3654 Navajo Street, 303-477-9984.