The Greeks rule in ‘Iphigenia in Aulis’

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Chicago theaters and their audiences have been engaging in an intense love affair with the ancient Greeks in recent seasons.

Court Theatre enjoyed immense success with its production of “An Iliad” it had to remount it in record time. “All Our Tragic,” the Hypocrites’ daylong marathon of the existing tragedies, attracted such an enthusiastic crowd that it’s set to return to the stage next summer. The fierce competition between fabled warriors Hector and Achilles is currently the stuff of a blazing monologue in Teatro Vista’s “Tamer of Horses.”

And now comes Court’s fierce, modern, crystal clear rendering of Euripides’ “Iphigenia in Aulis” — the first entry in a three-year cycle of productions that also will include Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon” and Sophocles’ “Electra.” All will feature translations by Nicholas Rudall and direction by Charles Newell, who share such a gift for bringing these works to vivid life.

IPHIGENIA IN AULIS Highly recommended When: Through Dec. 7 Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Tickets: $45-$65 Info: (773) 753-4472; Run time: 95 minutes with no intermission

As with Shakespeare, the plays of the Greeks are best understood when seen on stage rather than read in a classroom. They are flesh-and-blood stories in which life-and-death choices are made by real people — soldiers and slaves, husbands and wives, parents and children, competitive brothers. And while some higher power — “the fates” — may hover, free will is unquestionably at work.

Rudall’s translation here is elegant yet colloquial, and you might even detect an almost Mamet-like quality in its directness and acerbic humor. All the characters in this play speak their minds. They possess fierce allegiances and often hypocritical values — and the egos to match — and they never fail to engage in vigorous debate.

Euripides’ play, set in the port city of Aulis, begins at a crucial moment — just as the Greeks, led by King Agamemnon (the always brainy, razor-sharp Mark L. Montgomery), are to set sail for what will be a brutal, decade-long war in Troy. A stupid war, it is being waged in order to retrieve Helen, the infamous wife of Agamemnon’s brother, Menelaus (Michael Huftile, a deft partner in a scorching verbal battle with Montgomery), who ran off with her lover, Paris.

When the winds stall, and make it impossible for the massive Greek army to set sail for Troy, Agamemnon is commanded by a goddess to sacrifice Iphigenia (a deft turn by Stephanie Andrea Barron), his beloved daughter. He has kept his wife, Clytemnestra (Sandra Marquez, full of fire and wit, and stunningly beautiful in an oxblood red gown by designer Jacqueline Firkins), in the dark about all this. So mother and daughter arrive in Aulis expecting to prepare for Iphigenia’s marriage to the handsome warrior, Achilles (a winningly narcissistic Jordan Brown), who also is clueless.

Is Agamemnon making the ultimate sacrifice for the glory of Greece, or is he just unable and unwilling to back out of a monumentally warped decision? He confides most of his misgivings to his elderly slave (Christopher Donahue, whose quicksilver emotional shifts light up the stage). And throughout, the Chorus (the galvanic Adrienne Walker, along with Kasey Alfonso, Jeanne T. Arrigo, Emjoy Gavino, Tania Richard, and choreographer Tracy Walsh, all dressed in couturier gowns the color of the Aegean Sea) supplies the society’s largely powerless feminine voice.

One intriguing note here is that Iphigenia, very much a gushing daddy’s girl at the start, quickly becomes her father’s daughter, rationalizing her sacrifice as the thing that will bring glory to Greece, as well as herself.

Set designer Scott Davis’ elevated, industrial-style brick wharf (handsomely lit by John Culbert, with chilling sound by Andre Pluess) serves as the platform for most of the action, with great coils of rope anchoring the ships headed to war. The slaughter begins on that wharf, but there is much more to come.

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