Title: Iphigenia and the Furies (On Taurian Land)
Written by: Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho)
Directed by: Jonathan Seinen
Starring: Augusto Bitter, Virgilia Griffith, Thomas Olajide, PJ Prudat
Presented by: Saga Collectif
Venue: Aki Studio Theatre in Toronto
Euripides was never known for his sex jokes. The sober-minded tragedian of ancient Greece is typically associated with his realistic treatment of myth and his psychologically complex heroines. None of this has stopped Toronto’s Saga Collectif from tackling his fifth-century BC Iphigenia in Tauris with spirited irreverence and an appetite for the lewd.
One of the chief pleasures of the 65-minute Iphigenia and the Furies (On Taurian Land), which opened at the Aki Studio on Thursday night, is that it can’t be reduced to a single approach or motivation. The play is in constant conversation with the original story’s absurdity, but never at the cost of its relationships or themes. There’s an intriguing slipperiness to the aesthetic; the action occupies a world that can feel heightened and fabular while still disaffected and contemporary. This simultaneity opens up a curious theatrical space that lets good storytelling exist alongside ironic commentary – while still leaving room for jokes.
Playwright Ho Ka Kei doesn’t stray too far from Euripides’s plot. Decades earlier, the goddess Artemis saved Iphigenia (Virgilia Griffith) from being sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon. Now Iphigenia is Artemis’s prisoner in Tauris, charged with the unenviable task of killing any foreigners who step ashore. The silver lining of her bad job: “Great dental,” Iphigenia explains wryly.
She’s helped by the Chorus – a single Taurian woman played sardonically by the very funny PJ Prudat. When two “hardy, Greek homos,” arrive in the land, Iphigenia prepares to slaughter them, only to discover that one is her long-lost brother Orestes (Thomas Olajide). Orestes has his own problems; haunted by the guilt of committing matricide, he’s come to Tauris to steal a statue to appease Apollo, who will clear his conscience once and for all. Eventually, Iphigenia, Orestes and Pylades (Augusto Bitter) rob the Taurians of their cherished idol and set sail for Greece.
Much of the production’s electricity can be attributed to the synergy between playwright Ho and director Jonathan Seinen. The comic timing is flawless; some of the contemporary one-liners could feel glib in less skilled hands, but here they zing. The characters are all emotionally credible, while still bemused by the way the gods have screwed up their lives. When Orestes complains about being manipulated by Apollo – “you told me it would be fine!” he says of the brutal murder of his mother – he seems to be satirizing the absurdity of his own fatalism. Everyone is “woke” in ancient Tauris; of course, that doesn’t mean they have to act on their words.
The cast is uniformly strong. Griffith is particularly luminous in the lead role, blasé about her misfortune one moment, then moved to the core when she recognizes her brother. Christine Urquhart’s minimalist set of white paper columns is accented by the incredible mustard-coloured velvet dress she’s designed for Iphigenia.
The play’s treatment of homosexuality is also worth noting. Playing lovers, Olajide and Bitter are refreshingly hands-on, crawling on top of each other at every given opportunity, making crude jokes at the other’s expense. There’s a no-holds-barred attitude to their love and its language that feels new, as does the way Ho depicts the inconsistencies in society’s attitude toward it. Bitter gets a great speech on Pylades’s inability to donate blood that is, of course, all too relevant.
The other key interest is the fact that this story of cultural theft and cursed bloodlines is told by actors who are all persons of colour. As a member of the vanquished nation, Prudat gives a moving speech about being on the losing side of conflicting historical narratives. The play ends with her alone on stage, repeating a phrase about the cycle of violence that could be either prophecy or warning. It’s a haunting finale that Seinen boldly pushes to its limit.
Iphigenia and the Furies (on Taurian Land) continues at Toronto’s Aki Studio Theatre until Jan. 20 (sagacollectif.com).