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Death as Duty 

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Chicago Actors Ensemble

"I owe God a death." This is the phrase in the mouths of Shakespeare's warriors as they head for battle. It's a hard idea for modern audiences to handle, the idea that our death is owed to anyone or anything. Maybe, we'll concede, the "gift" of life came from others, but by the time we die, we hope to have earned our life--it's ours to spend as we please.

Of course ultimately this gift must be returned, to God or nature--and in most cases, without our wishes being consulted or considered. The Greeks and Elizabethans grasped that grimness; for them the hardest test of character was how and for what stakes a person returned the debt. You see the ethic in Shakespeare's stoic "Nothing became his life so much as the ending of it." If at its least death is a mere subtraction from the living, at its best it's an act that ennobles the lost life more fully than the longest span of years.

This act is at its noblest in Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis, the tragedy of a heroine who discovers she owes the state her death. What Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac was for Israel, Agamemnon's ritual killing of his daughter Iphigenia was for the Greeks, a paradigm of pitiless duty transcending love or mercy. So pitiless must it have seemed that in Euripides' other treatment of the same act, Iphigenia in Tauris, he gave it a happy ending, as did Racine, Corneille, and Gluck centuries later.

But in Iphigenia in Aulis (406 BC), the playwright was as pitiless as Artemis. In the myth, this goddess becomes enraged when Agamemnon kills one of her sacred stags and forcibly becalms the Greek fleet at Aulis, preventing it from sailing to Troy and the victory the gods have promised. The oracle at Chalcis declares that Artemis will relent only when Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter. So, when Euripides' play opens, the devious Greek commander has decided to lure his wife, Clytemnestra, and daughter to Aulis by pretending that Iphigenia will marry Achilles.

It's here Euripides plays his dark dramatic ironies for all they're worth. As Clytemnestra and the chorus of women of Chalcis rejoice at the coming wedding, Iphigenia gleefully runs to her father, giggling as she asks him where he's going to take her. The craven Agamemnon is too weak to tell the truth; a messenger finally alerts the horrified mother.

Clytemnestra then ferociously denounces her heartless husband with a savage inventory of the depths of his ambition. But Euripides, unlike Aeschylus, is not intent on depicting white-hot rages and cut-and-dried conflicts. Earlier in the play, he told us how Agamemnon, rather than kill his daughter, tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Greek armies to disband. With equal evenhandedness, Euripides presents Achilles, usually portrayed as wooden, as an awkward good guy, unaware he is intended to marry Iphigenia but, once told her plight stalwart in his willingness to rescue her. Even the heroic Clytemnestra has her manipulative side: to save her daughter she's not above the subterfuge of offering the girl--for her own reasons, and this time for real--to Achilles.

Among Euripides' compassionate characterizations, the most human is of Iphigenia. When she discovers her father's intent, her first reaction is the raw panic of a young girl who loves life ("No more for me the light of day!") and won't give it up ("It's better to live miserably than to die in glory!"). But when Iphigenia fully grasps her coming death, she able to see beyond it--to realize that the bloodshed Achilles plans to prevent her death can only postpone the war with Troy that only her death can begin to end. In her sudden choice to die, Iphigenia is a martyr with a feminist stamp: she knows many men must die, but it is her woman's death that is essential to initiate the fated carnage and ultimately free the Greeks from Troy. As much as Antigone, Iphigenia has found her mission.

Because lphigenia is so willing to owe the state her death, a happy ending is out of the question. Then, too, the curse of the house of Atreus is doomed to continue. But the family's finest hour is surely Iphigenia's conscious choice of death (and we accept for the play's sake that death's political and religious necessity).

This is no tragedy to approach at half-speed or with half a heart. Eric Ronis's staging of this play, the first of the Chicago Actors Ensemble's third "Free Theater in Uptown" series (The Plague opens August 31), remains remarkably true to Euripides' compassion and realism. Framed by set designer Malgorzata Komorowska's abstract rocks and ropes, the cast take on their own elemental rawness, playing 2,400-year-old scenes as if they'd been written yesterday.

As Agamemnon, Arthur Pearson is both the leader desperate to placate an angry goddess (and an even angrier army) and the man sleepwalking through a father's nightmare. Somewhat blithe and brittle in the first act, Mary Derbyshire's Clytemnestra approaches volcano force and heat in the second (though the enraged wife isn't sufficiently integrated with the anguished mother). As an Achilles who's a good soldier and a willing pawn, Lawrence Novikoff is the reluctant hero, a champion without a shred of initiative--until, too late, he falls in love with Iphigenia.

In the telling opening scene (where the men hatch the plots the women must endure), Christopher Coldoff is effective as Menelaus, the brother who urges Agamemnon on to the sacrifice. The seven-member chorus is a diverse and energetic band--no chanting robots here; their varied reactions are as fascinating as the Euripidean themes--the virtue of happy obscurity, the imponderables of fate--that they pursue.

But the show's true strength is Hilary Mac Austin's down-to-earth and up-to-heaven Iphigenia. It is Iphigenia's death, after all. When Mac Austin as Iphigenia finally talks about it, after everyone else has had his or her say, she fairly bursts with the girl's fierce hold on life, followed quickly and believably by her greater love of country. (The change is symbolized by the way her hair is dressed, first loose in long braids, then tied up for the coming sacrifice.) Mac Austin takes us close enough to taste the death Iphigenia owes, and Euripides would ask no more.


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