Scott Sneddon is Senior Editor on SesayArts Magazine where he is also a critic and contributor.
Let’s acknowledge up front that the backstory is daunting.
In Saga Collectif’s Iphigenia and the Furies (on Taurian Land) at Aki Studio until January 20, playwright Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho) has reimagined ancient Greek playwright Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians. The source play, rooted in Greek mythology and dating from approximately 413 BCE, will be obscure to the majority of theatregoers. And it comes freighted with an especially massive mythological backstory, which Iphigenia (a steely-eyed yet haunted Virgilia Griffith) spends more than the first 10 minutes recounting.
Iphigenia explains how she was almost sacrificed by by her father Agamemnon (sardonically referred to as “Daddy Aggy”) to appease the Greek goddess Artemis before the Trojan War. Artemis plucked her away at the last moment, substituting a pig, which was slaughtered in her stead. Whisked to the distant land of the Taurians, Iphigenia, who is believed dead by her family back in Argos, has become priestess of the temple of Artemis. In a sick symmetry, her duty now is to oversee the ritual sacrifice of foreigners who come among the Taurians. At her behest, the temple regularly runs red with blood.
This is a complex tale told briskly and compellingly. Griffith cuts a regal figure in elegant gold fringes as she prowls the sparse, angular stage before the temple of Artemis, conjured by minimalist paper columns The static quality of ancient Greek theatre – its long speeches leaching out exposition and internal conflict – is energized by contemporary idioms and speed in the delivery. The fantastic extremity of the story and the intensity of Griffith’s telling – she alternately waxes melancholic, spits venom, gasps incredulously, and grasps after meaning – grab our attention.
When her brother Orestes (Thomas Olajide) appears with his companion Pylades (Augusto Bitter), the play’s core conflict crystallizes. They are two foreigners – two lovers, in fact – on Taurian land. The brooding and manic Orestes has done slaughtering of his own back in Greece, and is being hounded by the Furies of the play’s title. ( “Furies, furies, furiesssss”, he recounts in a self-aggrandizing echo.) The play’s tight 65 minutes will turn on brother and sister’s recognition of one another, and the conflict between Iphigenia’s family loyalty and her duty as priestess to sacrifice the foreigners. This is about Greek colonialism “on Taurian land”: the play’s subtitle echoes land acknowledgements familiar to Toronto theatre audiences in a Canadian context where words of reconciliation fall far short of actions.
The final character in Iphigenia and the Furies (on Taurian Land) is the Greek chorus come to life in the figure of Chorus (PJ Prudat). A Taurian servant of Iphigenia, she carries out the ritual slaughter of strangers such as Orestes and Pylades. Garbed in black-and-white business wear, she gives wry and urbane voice to Taurian concerns, subverting the notion of barbarism. On Taurian land, sacrifice is business . . . like a coffee run.
Also notable are the roles eliminated from the original play. This stripped-down, diverse cast includes no gods or rulers. This is a family drama and a clash of cultures without divine or human authority tipping the scales. Playwright Ho Ka Kei’s choice of title seems to refer less to the mythological furies pursuing Orestes (whom we never see) than the broader ancestral, familial, religious and cultural forces harrying all of the characters. Iphigenia’s response to her furies, situated on the ancestral territories of the Taurians, is freighted with significance outweighing simple family blood.
This is ultimately a competition of backstories. Iphigenia’s dominates the first part of the play, Orestes emerges in the middle, then Chorus’ becomes known in the final part. Our sympathies swirl in what becomes a high-stakes conflict between incompatible cultures, leading to a conclusion that is shattering in its stark inevitability.
Given its (I thought) inaccessibly ancient source material, I was surprised that this play moved me, and has stuck with me since. Which makes it a shame that the theatre had many empty seats the night we attended. This inventive and intense work provides an audience-friendly lesson in Greek myth and Greek theatre, conjures a fantastical narrative realized by strong performances of four sharply realized characters, and surprises with laughter and insight that bring the margins into the core of the narrative . . . and, frankly, it knocks you emotionally to the floor at play’s end.
The performances that remain deserve a wider audience – check it out if you can.
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What: Iphigenia and the Furies (on Taurian Land) written by Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho); Directed by Jonathan Seinen; Assistant Director: Jay Northcott; Live Sound Design by Heidi Chan; Performed by Virgilia Griffith, Augusto Bitter, Thomas Olajide, PJ Prudat
Who: Audiences 18 years of age and older
When: On stage until January 20, 2019; Run Time: 65 minutes (no intermission)
Where: Aki Studio, 585 Dundas Street East, Toronto, ON
Tickets and Info: sagacollectif.com
© 2019 Scott Sneddon, Sesaya/ SesayArts Magazine