‘Iphigenia’ reimagined

Gods and generals, superheroes and aliens, and intergalactic warfare and Greek tragedy will come together this Wednesday in “Iphigenia Among the Stars.”

A School of Drama world premiere, “Iphigenia” will be a thesis show for directing student Jack Tamburri DRA ’13, who worked with writer Benjamin Fainstein DRA ’13 to weave the text of Euripides’ two plays centering on the tragic heroine — “Iphigenia in Aulis” and “Iphigenia Among the Taurians” — with the language and aesthetics of the 1970s superhero comics of Jack Kirby. Despite the play’s blend of inspirations, the production is not unusual for a thesis project in both its integrative production process and its reinterpretation of a classic play.

Dustin Wills DRA ’14, a second-year directing student at the school just beginning to plan his thesis show, said that weighty themes and epic proportions — such as those in “Iphigenia” — are hallmarks of many thesis productions. These projects are the largest of the drama school’s shows in both budget and run time. Each of the three directing thesis shows this year has a budget of between $23,000 and $24,000, and is scheduled to run for six nights.

For directing students, shows like “Iphigenia” provide one last chance to work on large-scale productions before they graduate and are forced to work their way into the theater world from the bottom up, Wills said.

“It’s unclear when is the next time we’re going to have the opportunity to do this,” Wills said. “No one is being squeamish about the plays being chosen … they’re all big, big shows.”

“Iphigenia” takes place in outer space, a more expansive setting than that of the average stage production, Tamburri said. Marrying Euripides’ plays with science-fiction influences was “intuitive” for him, he explained, since the eerie “adventure story” of the original plays fits perfectly into the “epic space opera.”

Enlarging the audience’s imagination to encompass this imaginative world was a unique challenge of the production because such settings are usually reserved for film or graphic novels rather than the stage, where special effects capabilities are more limited, Tamburri said.

Tamburri explained that the natural limitations of working with a Greek play made it more feasible to emphasize the play’s dramatic setting — in Greek theater, the audience typically sees very little of the action. This made the team’s task to create a world onstage where the audience can believe “on a fundamental, emotional level” that these fantastic events are happening offstage, “without worrying too much about pyrotechnics.”

To maintain the show’s gravity of tone, the production spent a significant amount of money buying weighty, dense materials for the costumes, instead of the spandex most people associate with superheroes. Tamburri said that while superheroes onstage are usually done with “an element of camp and self-awareness,” he and the designers were careful to avoid this “contemporary irony” in the costumes or staging since “Greek tragedy is a uniquely humorless form of theater.”

Tamburri emphasized that the values and morals of Ancient Greek civilization are so different from today’s that setting it in another universe entirely made more sense to him than doing a traditional “update.” But despite this divide, he added, many of Euripides’ critiques apply to today’s culture as well, such as his attacks on the idea that war is inevitable or that men are intrinsically more valuable than women.

“I wanted to present what is different and unusual and distant to us about this material,” Tamburri said. “It’s a beautiful world to immerse one’s self in, but there is also great ugliness in it.”

Sheria Irving DRA ’13, who plays Iphigenia, said she needed to strip away some of the distance and find the basic human needs and desires at the root of the character, which are as simple as those of a little girl who wants her father’s protection and dreams of being a wife and mother.

While Irving said she has embraced the role as an opportunity to grow, neither she nor Tamburri cast her as Iphigenia. As with all curricular projects at the School of Drama, the cast and design team for the show was assigned by the respective department heads, who understand which experiences would benefit their students, Wills said.

Irving said that the faculty wanted to push Irving out of her comfort zone by making her the protagonist of a play.

“I’m usually the kooky characters, the weird ones … [I’ve] never had a role where I am the desired, the wanted,” she said.

Tamburri said that while having teams assigned to directors can be challenging, the experience forces them to work with a variety of personalities, which will be a constant requirement throughout their careers.

The final choice of play is also outside of the director’s control. Students develop and submit several proposals to James Bundy, the dean of the Drama School, who then chooses which project they will ultimately complete. Tamburri said faculty and deans prioritize shows they are sure will be valuable learning experiences, with the result that “a new take on a great play gets chosen over the small, idiosyncratic project.”

The school’s admissions structure provides these opportunities for collaboration by design, said Steven Padla, senior associate director of communications at the School of Drama and the Yale Repertory Theater. The number of students admitted to each department is based on pairing directors, designers and actors in the correct proportions to work on student productions.

“Iphigenia Among the Stars” will open on Wednesday, one day later than initially scheduled due to Hurricane Sandy. The show will run at the Iseman Theater through Saturday, Nov. 3.

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