In reading that this play, Iphigenia – written by Caridad Svich, and performed, on this occasion, at The Bread and Roses Theatre – was a Brechtian and surreal investigation into violence towards women and LGBTQIA themes, I was very intrigued. I felt it paradoxical to combine a dream-like, ethereal mode of theatre with a political, alienated and metatheatrical one. The aim was high, I thought.
The first notable thing about this performance was the large role that immersion played: constant glances into the audience; Yoli (Rebecca Rahman-González) gesturing that a spectator kiss her hand; popcorn being offered to the front row; even the set leaked into the audience, with the purple glow-stick crosses stuck down by duct tape, all around the floor. This immersion paired with monologues in which characters, chiefly Iphigenia (Jess Rahman-González), spoke of themselves in third-person, and with ‘Brechtian’ factors such as live costume-changing, multi-roling, and humorous references to the action on stage, to reference an epic theatre style.
Then, we move on to the surrealist elements. The only truly surreal feature of this performance were the images projected onto a screen behind the stage. These images were, indeed, visceral, and I was particularly drawn to the static/moving pictures of Iphigenia and her father, General Adolfo (Mickey Shaw) displayed during the opening scene. The combination of storytelling and a visual reference worked effectively and played into the Brechtian theme. This was, however, perhaps the only moment that the surreal and the epic combined well. Whilst there were small surreal symbolisms to be noted – from the floaty Christmas lights wrapped around Iphigenia’s body to her holding two delicate balloons attached to a solid branch, blindfolded – I felt these not enough to have real poignancy. But, I was especially confused by the choice to have all performers, barring Iphigenia and Achilles (Sam Kindon), shoeless. If this was to differentiate these two from the other characters, I felt this too unnoticeably significant.
Characterisation was a huge issue for this performance, particularly for Jess Rahman-Gazález. For her characterisation of Iphigenia, everything seemed forcefully poetic and over-performed, and this high energy became, over time, tiresome to watch. Emotions other than joy seemed forced and highly lacklustre. As for the other performers, not a single gestussen was used – something I found particularly odd. With all the multi-roling, it was difficult in many scenes to pinpoint who was who. Shaw, on the other hand, demonstrated differentiation well, making a convincing and humorous General Adolfo. Sara Jewell playing Luz and Virgin Puta (and an understudy for Violeta Imperial on the night I saw the performance) also characterised well – to the extent at which I thought it would have been a better choice for her to play Iphigenia. Having Achilles represented as a libidinous sadomasochist was an interesting and refreshing choice, one which I felt had potential. However, Kindon’s characterisation seemed to be very samey the whole way through, and I was waiting for a real corrupt descent of character, which would have made for a more effective epic theatre.
Whilst Brechtian performances are supposed to eliminate psychological realism, there must be at all times a visual scope enabling the audience to understand what is going on at all times. That is to say, even if the audio was completely removed from a true Brechtian piece, the visuals would tell the story. A lot of Brechtian techniques seemed to be overused in this performance, and the simplest, and perhaps what would have been the most effective in this performance – like gestus – were omitted. One example of this is a scene wherein Yoli, Luz and Yvonne sit off stage, commenting on a dialogue between Iphigenia and Achilles. This, whilst funny at a few points, seemed highly unnecessary, having no political or estranging effect. It just seemed to have been a technique employed for the sake of it, taking away from the aims of the play. This was a good opportunity to present the audience with another, darker interpretation of the scene, to distract them from the theatrical artificiality of the dialogue and present them with the underlying corruptions. A good opportunity missed, I think.
One moment I did find efficacious, however, was what I’m going to crudely call “The Sex Fest”, towards the end of the play. This was definitely a surreal and poignant scene in its hilarity, and the only scene in which I enjoyed the absence of clear character. This is because it had a more general impact – referring to the common objectifiers of women. However, when the performers started referring to themselves as characters, this impact was slightly lost for me.
Another moment was the repeated movements under the stroboscopic lighting. Whilst these movements had been repeated for a long – too long – amount of time a few scenes before, looking at this scene alone, the rhythmic music, lighting, movements and voiceovers layered extremely well and were effective. There were, however, movements throughout the rest of the performance that really frustrated me, and this is particular to moments when simultaneous movements occurred. Little hand gestures or counting aloud, used to stay in time during these movements I mentioned, or at the end before Iphigenia’s last mention – to name a few – were highly distracting and took away from any potential efficacy.
Repetition was a problem, and the whole performance towards the end became highly predictable, from Iphigenia’s emotionless, poetic monologues to the performers announcing the next scandalous, almost-identical photographs of Iphigenia to be projected onto the screen. Surrealist theatre focuses on dreams, and dreams should not be predictable. And any Brechtian predictability should have political purpose. Hence, I found this repetitiveness of structure fallible.
This was a performance with a clear aim, and its plot was effective in using the canonical character of Iphigenia as a puppet in a quest to explore violence towards women. Issues arise, however, in the performance’s attempt to combine two very different genres of theatre, and its lack of certainty as to why it was using the techniques it was and what the effects of these be lead to the piece’s comedown.
“A play with a clear and exciting aim but with execution not living up to desire.”