The Chicago Greeks

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Each fall the Getty opens its outdoor amphitheater in Malibu to a theater company to produce a classic Greek or Roman play for a modern audience. With only a couple of exceptions what we've seen are Greek tragedies, so audiences have become familiar with the challenges of a chorus, the pesky demands of the gods, the dispossessed voice of reason and truth.

The gods are particularly demanding in Euripedes' final play, Iphigenia in Aulis. That's this year's offering at the Getty, produced by Chicago's Court Theatre.

The Greeks are on the way to retrieve Helen and sack Troy. As the play opens we find Agamemnon stranded on Aulis with no winds to fill his sails. We learn that the god Artemis will only restore the winds if Agamemnon sacrifices his eldest daughter Iphigenia. The stakes of drama are quickly set: summon his daughter to be sacrificed by his own hand or betray his men, his country, and the gods?

How's that for a dilemma?

One of the challenges of this annual Greek-at-the-Getty ritual is how to reach a modern audience. It's a problem that's both pragmatic and aesthetic.

Pragmatically, the Getty's outdoor amphitheater is a tough space to make an impression in. The default backdrop is the imposing facade of the museum itself. Couple that with the acoustic challenges of the space and the Getty's concerns for it's canyon neighbors and it's easy to see why earlier productions have felt physically and acoustically orphaned and isolated.

Happily, the Getty has figured out how to reach an audience with a combination of trained voices and clever design. They've also learned to guide designers and directors into scenic solutions that don't ignore the surroundings but embrace them.

Iphigenia in Aulis chooses a series of simple nondescript columns -- perhaps trying to evoke the masts of those stranded Greek ships. While visually less than stunning, they do serve to define an tight playing space that focuses the production.

The aesthetic challenge of making the work relevant is more profound and what's truly at the heart of the Getty's work.

How do you make these ancient plays relevant?

Do you make them modern and connect them to our present world through adaptation? Or do you present them as complete worlds from another time?

The Court Theatre leans to the side of making modern sense of the ancient forms. The chorus is a stunning quintet of singers in ocean-like ball gowns who alternately speak and harmonize their tale.

Our warriors -- Agamemnon, Menelaus, Achilles and a heroic slave -- look a bit like off duty highway patrol men who have kept their boots and striped pants while their shirts range from tunic to t-shirt. Their performances are virulent and direct.

Iphigenia is clad in a virginal white dress evocative of a Greek toga. Clytemnestra's longer burgundy gown is more reserved echoing her performance.

Where the production succeeds, it brings a muscular clarity to Euripedes' words. Where it fails is an odd mixture of either making the Greeks too familiar or too emotionally distant. But the Court Theatre's production is aiming for the right target even when they fail to hit it.

Should you see it? If you can get tickets, yes. Iphigenia in Aulis is a direct and honest attempt to mine the power of the Greeks and a brilliant excuse to spend a night outdoors in Malibu.

Iphigenia in Aulis plays at the Getty Villa in Malibu through September 30.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Photo: Cast of Iphigenia in Aulis. (Craig Schwartz)