By MARK BLANKENSHIP
When you think about the script for an ancient Greek tragedy, you probably don’t imagine a stage direction that says, “Sandra takes a Diet Coke to the goddess.” But in Rescue Me, Michi Barall’s adaptation of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris, goddesses drink soda all the time. They watch television, too, while the daughters of Trojan heroes take migraine medication. Really, Barall’s characters behave more like everyday schlubs than classical heroes
That’s no accident. “I’ve always been saddened by the fact that when we do Greek tragedy, it tends to be ponderous and stuffy and kind of boring,” she says. “It’s always an 1880s, Cambridge Classics thing.”
When she first discovered Euripides’ play, Barall, who’s also an actor and a PhD student, thought it was anything but stuffy. The plot follows Iphigenia, who’s been saved by the goddess Artemis from ritual sacrifice and spirited to a seaside region called Tauris. Artemis demands that Iphigenia sacrifice all the foreigners who come to the shore, but when the girl learns that her brother Orestes has arrived to steal a sacred statue, she hatches an escape plan.
“I think the play is very American,” Barall says. “It’s the story of a guy and a gal with some magical object fleeing barbarians. You’ve seen that movie. It’s Raiders of the Lost Ark."
The current production of Rescue Me, presented at the Ohio Theatre by the Ma-Yi Theater Company, certainly aims to be modern and lively. It calls for TVs everywhere, jokes flying left and right, and plenty of pop songs. When Iphigenia learns that her brother is alive, she runs off stage to collect herself, so the other characters stop the show, serve snacks, and bring out real scholars to answer audience questions about the Greeks.
These flourishes are funny, but they’re more than a goof. They call attention to the play as a piece of theatre. They ask us to recognize how much we know about the storytelling in ancient Greek drama and how it has affected every story that’s come since. “I wanted to explore how these plays become palimpsests,” Barall says. “There’s 2,500 years of them being done, and there’s all this history and all these preconceptions that carry forward.
By the end of the play, the lines between characters and actors have blurred, as have distinctions between the ancient past and the present day. The suggestion is not only that we understand how Greek plays work, but also that the attitudes and assumptions in Greek plays affect how we live. “How much are we constituted by ancient characters and don’t even know it?” Barall asks. “To what extent are we created by myths and stories?”
It’s a question worth contemplating. Maybe over a Diet Coke.
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor