Arts & Culture

“Iphigenia and Other Daughters” is a Somber, Striking Vision

Danny Reinan, copy editor

Dylan Taylor-Brunnell (left), who plays Orestes, and Minna O’Connell (right), who plays Electra, during a rehearsal for “Iphigenia,” taken by Nathan Olson.

A father sacrifices his eldest daughter, dyeing her bridal gown red with his knife. The same knife is used to cut him down in turn when his wife kills him in revenge. Decades later, she holds the same, now rusted, knife high when taunting her furious youngest daughter about how she’ll never be strong enough to wield it like she once did. But that knife is ultimately her undoing when her son slays her with it, his quivering hands dyed red. This knife is the central image of the play “Iphigenia and Other Daughters,” written by Ellen McLaughlin and directed by Barbra Berlovitz, which ran at Augsburg earlier this month – a symbol of the pain and futility of cyclical violence, orchestrated beautifully by authentic acting, dreary visuals, and a truly unique, singular direction.

The play retells the fall of the House of Atreus, a classic Greek story of a family line cursed by blood and violence. This cycle of brutality is incited when Agamemnon, who never appears onstage but whose influence looms large, kills Iphigenia, and is in turn slain by his wife, Clytemnestra, in revenge for killing the only one of their four children that she ever loved. This leaves her three other children – the nearly feral Electra, who has been honing her killing intent towards her mother for decades, the nomad Orestes, whose time at war has made him weary of violence, and the neglected Chrysothemis, who simply wants to tend to her garden in peace – to grapple with their family’s dysfunction, before Orestes ultimately brings it to an end by killing his mother.

Such a bleak story necessitated desolate visuals, and both the costuming and set absolutely delivered. Michael Burden’s minimalist set design is featureless aside from the dirt from Chrysothemis’s barren garden, occasionally punctuated by the flowers that she nurtures before Electra inevitably digs them up again, a microcosm of the family’s cyclical violence. Stacey Palmer’s costume designs, meanwhile, illustrate the insurmountable gulf between the children — namely Electra, who wears a tattered, dirt-stained dress and a single work boot, and Orestes, whose mottled cape and gauntlets make him look like a post-apocalyptic vagabond — and their mother, who enters every scene in a different show-stopping gown.

In dealing with such a dark story, all of the cast and crew needed to come together to authentically stage its despair without crumbling under the weight of it. For Kira Zacharias, who played Chrysothemis, much of it came down to the way she interfaced with the play’s multilayered language. “It’s a long, heavy play, with a lot of dense language, and a lot of it came down to finding what we were saying and why,” she said. “Once we knew what we were saying and the meaning behind it, the emotion came with it.”

“Barbra guided us a lot and connected each action to our breath,” said Minna O’Connell, who played Electra. “It’s emotionally charged and heavy, but because it’s all connected to breath, we were always grounded.”

Just as Berlovitz’s focus on grounding helped the cast convey such dark moments, Dylan Taylor-Brunnell, who played Orestes, expressed that the camaraderie among the cast helped make sure that the final moment of the play, when he kills Clytemnestra, truly lands. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to work with,” said Taylor-Brunnell. “Barbra is an astounding director with a magnificent vision.” That vision, and the cast unity that went into conveying it, is abundantly clear, making “Iphigenia” a truly unforgettable production.

The next theater performances at Augsburg will be the Student Cabaret, which will be held on Jan. 21, and a production of the musical “Into the Woods,” which will run from April 6-10. You can keep up with future Augsburg theater events at the Augsburg Box Office website, or on the department’s Instagram, @augsburgtheater.