‘Iphigenia Point Blank’ not just a retelling, but a focus on the world today

Iphigenia Point Blank: Story of the First Refugee

University of Iowa, Thayer Theatre — through Nov. 11

‘Iphigenia Point Blank: Story of the First Refugee’ continues this weekend. — Tim Schoon/University of Iowa

This month, the University of Iowa Department of Theatre Arts has the honor of presenting a Iphigenia Point Blank: Story of the First Refugee. Its final performances will be Nov. 8-10 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 11 at 2 p.m. at the David Thayer Theatre, UI Theatre Building. Tickets are $5-20.

The performances are not only a continuation of the millennial-old mythology of Iphigenia, but also the culmination of a three year, multi-continental collaboration between the University of Iowa’s Lisa Schlesinger, director Marion Schoevaert, composer Kinan Azmeh and filmmaker Irina Patkanian. The cast, including Crystal Stewart, Leela Bassuk, Michael Francis and Branden Shaw, blends international and local talent for a rare multidimensional theatrical experience.

To understand the brilliant complexity of the production, a bit of backstory is helpful. Iphigenia is the daughter of Agamemnon, the ruler of the Greeks who inadvertently kills a deer in a grove sacred to Artemis and must therefore sacrifice Iphigenia in order to receive the winds that will allow his ships to sail to war on Troy. He lures his daughter to Aulis with the claim that she’ll marry Achilles.

Her character pops up three times in the Greek plays that have found their way to our era. Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, focused on the father, uses Iphigenia as a motive for Clytemnestra (Iphigenia’s mother) and Aegisthus (Clytemnestra’s lover) to murder the king. Euripides provides two plays about the character, Iphigenia at Aulis and Iphigenia in Tauris. These plays are each anchored in one version of the narrative that has Artemis spare Iphigenia’s life, whisking her away at the last moment.

‘Iphigenia Point Blank: Story of the First Refugee’ continues this weekend. — Tim Schoon/University of Iowa

The production uses elements from both plays: the first act takes place at Ailus, the third at Tullus. Prolonging the ambiguity that inheres within Iphigenia’s role, the second act features a wedding within a funeral — a convention in parts of Syria and other neighboring countries when a person dies before they come of age to marry. The third act shows Iphigenia in a foreign country, essentially a refugee awaiting the end of war and the ability to return home.

The innovation of portraying Iphigenia as a refugee came about, as many do, as a combination of contingency and creativity. In 2014, Schlesinger met with Patkanian to stage the play in the ruins of Crete — which happened to be at the peak of the refugee crisis, as the boats kept pouring in from across the sea. Schlesinger became intent, she said, on focusing “on where people go in the between space and keep a lens on the refugees.” In the meantime, Patkanian went to Lesbos to document arrivals and used the resulting images as a short film.

But the goal was to present the combined work in a theater. They needed a director who could share the vision. Schoevaert was a perfect fit, not only because the three knew each other from their time in Iowa City in the early ’90s, but also due to a shared aesthetic sensibility. This was confirmed as Schoevaert suggested the combined wedding/funeral at the center of the play (prompted itself by her familiarity with the work of composer Kinan Azmeh, who ended up composing the score for Iphigenia).

Rehearsal photo of ‘Iphigenia Point Blank: Story of the First Refugee.’ — Tim Schoon/University of Iowa

Much of what informs Schoevaert’s vision, and the research that gives her vision depth, is an appreciation of ritual.

“I thought it would be a perfect part of the performance — she’s sacrificed instead of going to the wedding,” Schoevaert told me. “What is a wedding? What is a funeral? It’s all about rituals — it changed everything. Ritual meant fire, meant water, meant all the things we do to bury the dead. I went to Africa, to Korea, to Russia, to Ukraine — just to do research.”

Both Patkanian and Schlesinger told me they appreciated the ritual depths of the performance as something deeply true about their vision for what theater should be.

“I always really only wanted to do theater that has all the disciplines — dance and music,” Schlesinger said. “I’m not as interested in stories on stage, but the space of ritual, sacred theater … [Schoevaert] calls it total theater … We all have to learn a new vocabulary … a form of storytelling, musicality, poetry, images, sacredness, ritual and a kind of rhythm.”

Unsurprisingly, Schoevaert understood the production in similar terms.

“There are few things that move me in theater,” Schoevaert said. “I didn’t find it in music or dance, and I found theater too predictable most of the time … I want to bring the poetry and the different way of using texts. I’m text based, even though I do a lot of physical theater. Here, the text is not a story line — it is a ritual. The priest, the Shaman — the tradition is to use the text in a different way.”

‘Iphigenia Point Blank: Story of the First Refugee’ continues this weekend. — Tim Schoon/University of Iowa

Schoevaert and Schlesinger have both been gratified by the ability to see the performance come together, each noting a different set of difficulties, ranging from pragmatics like funding and the fact that the three of them live in different parts of the world to more conceptual difficulties, like bridging the conceptual languages that separate different disciplines (something that Schlesinger calls “one of the more pleasant challenges”).

The payoff, however, has made perseverance worthwhile in its culmination.

“The life force of it is also beautiful. You see it come together in three dimensional space,” Schlesinger said.

Schoevaert enjoys being able to find, at last, a rough draft. “Now that I can see what doesn’t work, I know what I need to transform,” Schoevaert said.

The performance is not just a retelling of myth — both women were very clear that its focus is the nature of the world today. Schlesinger, the playwright, finds meaning in the extension from the source text.

“Artemis, the goddess of the wild, [is] giving warning to the general that if you go to war you’ll destroy everything sacred in the world. It’s a poetic, subtle subtext in the original that I try to bring out in this play — that war and ecocide are related. Genocide and ecocide are related.”

Schoevaert, as director, takes it a step farther.

“I’m glad that there’s a question about today woven into the play … My only passion is to question, to help people understand that we are at war … I wish we could look more directly into the mirror. I don’t like political theater, it’d have to be a poetic point of view. Political theater is activism, it’s preaching, almost like a religion … Do we reach the important question? That’s always my worry. Do we trigger anger in people’s hearts? I feel angry. I don’t feel sad and completely helpless — it triggers anger. I wish people were more angered by what’s going on around them.”

See Iphigeneia. Find beauty, find anger, find questions.

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