“Iphigenia: Book of Change” is an almost indecipherable performance text.
Directed and written by Elise Kermani, the hybrid production of puppetry, theater, dance, video and music, according to the program notes, combines the tale of Iphigenia, the Greek heroine sacrificed to the moon goddess Artemis, with true stories of contemporary women who have faced imprisonment. Among these stories are the narratives of 28-year-old Sandra Bland, who was found hanging in her cell while in Texas police custody, and Kermani’s relative “F” who was a political prisoner in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison during the country’s post-revolution religious crackdown on liberals led by Ayatollah Khomeinie’s extremist government.
Yet “Iphigenia: Book of Change” may rely too heavily on history and myth to tell these heart-wrenching stories, even if the heart of the show is in the right place.
We start with the production’s protagonist Sima/Iphigenia, (dancer and co-choreographer Laurel Jenkins) in a blue jumpsuit, sitting at a wooden desk staring over a book. She could be awaiting interrogation, about to write a confession in its pages, but it takes a moment for these implications to register because her interaction with Hamid/Orestes (dancer and co-choreographer Kevin Williamson) doesn’t communicate enough about this pair’s relationship, or their context independently of the program notes referenced above.
Williamson and Jenkins draw their hands around the edges of the table and book, as if playing an invisible game of Tetris. Later a spectral puppet, perhaps the spirit of Iphigenia, manned by three puppeteers, unfolds a manuscript, which reveals a glow-in-dark script when the lights go out.
What mystifies more than the meaning of these geometric patterns or hieroglyphic scribbles is the bond, or perhaps the tension, that brings these two characters into each other’s orbit. In Euripides’ rendition of the Iphigenia myth, Iphigenia and Orestes are siblings, who reunite when Orestes meets his sister—miraculously saved by the same goddess who ordered her death—alive among the Taurians. So Williamson and Jenkins could be a brother and sister encountering each other for the first time.
But what about the Hamid and Sima halves of these dual characters? Could Sima be a prisoner? Hamid her interrogator? The ambiguity of their roles is not so bad, but the vagueness of their intentions leaves the performance lacking intensity. Their movements resemble a rough game of musical chairs, rather than a contentious face-off between interrogator and prisoner or a surprise encounter between siblings, if that is what they’re supposed to be.
“Iphigenia’s” movement score shows more character when it meaningfully interacts with the production’s simple scenic elements, beautifully designed by Yao Zhang. When Jenkins cowers in the center of an upturned table—its legs like impenetrable prison bars—the fear of guards, torturers and interrogators becomes palpable. When Williamson swings a circular speaker, emitting a screaming wail round and round like a lasso, the prop becomes as threatening as a whipping lash, as haunting as a lone light bulb dangling from the ceiling of an interrogation room.
When the ensemble of dancers and puppeteers morphs into a slow-moving caravan, carrying tables and chairs on their backs, as Yulya Dukhovny bangs on a toy piano and moans out a mournful tune, there is suddenly some emotional heft. The moving tapestry calls to mind every imaginable human immigration crisis stretched through the annals of time that has forced families to flee their homes and carry their entire lives and load of worldly possessions on their backs.
But can distinct images alone carry an entire story however narratively loose it is? Kermani favors collage over cohesion, but “Iphigenia’s” driving force—one can guess that would be the will to survive — remains elusive and lacks thrust. It relies on background story, history, myth and an abrasive soundtrack of taiko drums, flutes and gongs to give it a pulse, but where’s the beating, throbbing heart? The shot of adrenaline?
“Iphigenia” begins to find its footing when Jenkins, in a bright red dress, dons what looks like an ornate pair of golden reindeer antlers. She spins in circles like a dervish caught in a trance or tumbleweed revolving in a desert dirt devil. The moment is hypnotic.
What was stumbling preamble before suddenly transforms into sheer momentum. But just as she finishes her turn, the lights come up. The story seems over before it has even begun.
Photography © 2016 MiShinnah Productions, Inc.