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REVIEW: Powerful Iphigenia and Other Daughters (Theatre Unbound)

Iphigenia and Other Daughters, currently being presented by Theatre Unbound at Gremlin Theatre in Saint Paul, MN. Photo by Theresa Burgess.

It says something that, 25 years after its premiere in Los Angeles, Ellen McLaughlin’s play Iphigenia and Other Daughters still has something powerful to say. It also says something that what’s advertised as a 90-110-minute play, in the hands of Theatre Unbound, clocks in at just under 80. A long, boring, or tedious trip through Greek tragedy this most definitely is not.

If you’re not familiar with Iphigenia, here’s your 21st-century orientation. Remember that very disturbing scene in Game of Thrones when Shireen is sacrificed by her father? The model for that story arc comes from the tale of Iphigenia in Greek mythology, with Iphigenia being claimed as the sacrifice to bring winds that will allow the Greek fleet to reach and attack Troy. (In the Song of Ice and Fire books, the sacrifice is intended to melt the winter snows that have stranded Stannis’ army, whereas in the TV series it’s intended to fuel a battlefield victory.) The tale was so discomforting in Antiquity that multiple playwrights and poets in wrote their own revisionist versions, many with happier endings.

Laughlin’s Iphigenia-etc is a revisionist take with a different arc, with a clearer and more sympathetic focus on the women in the story and their tangled motivations. There’s ample cause for hate – having one’s father murdered by your mother tends to mess up family relations, even if it’s avenging your sister’s apparent murder – but how it’s expressed is an interesting story worth watching.

Nissa Nordland (center) plays the kantale in Ipheginia and Other Daughters. Also pictured: Bethany McHugh, Tessa Dahlgren, Chloe Bell, Brighid Burkhalter, and Brianna Belland. Photo by Theresa Burgess.

As directed by Amber Bjork, it’s a slick, fast-paced show. Action unfolds in a vine-studded Greek garden assembled by Kezia Germ and Keegan Mahin. While the costumes by Alexandra Gould do not align with any ideas of Classical Greece that I know, they are distinctive and beautiful, and seem a natural reflection of their characters’ roles and personalities.

Many attempted updates and mountings of Greek tragedies seem to trip over their feet; this one moves both with its fast pacing and the nuanced performances by the lead women: Delta Rae Giordano as Clytemnestra, Nissa Nordland as her daughter Iphigenia, Samantha Joy Singh as Electra (another daughter), and Sierra Schermerhorn as Chrysothemis (same). By the time their brother Orestes (Henry Ellen Sansone) comes home, the seeds are sown for the revenge plot to really start sprouting. Giordano makes a fierce queen, especially in the proximity of Gremlin’s space, and you can practically see the sparks flying when she and Singh/Electra go head-to-head in their verbal sparring. Some haunting, original music by Nordland completes the trifecta.

Greek tragedy: it’s what’s for dinner.

Iphigenia and Other Daughters runs through March 10 at Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul, MN.

Amy Donahue