Tragedy and release, on the voices of ‘Iphigenia at Aulis’

A cruel sense of honor. Betrayal and human sacrifice. And a combined choir of 40 voices.

Ten Thousand Things Theater kicks off its new season with an elemental, music-infused re-telling of “Iphigenia at Aulis,” Euripides’ last known play. Translated in verse by onetime poet laureate W.S. Merwin and featuring new compositions by bandleader and performer J.D. Steele, the Greek tragedy from 400 B.C. offers stark reminders of why of all the Greek names that parents tap for their newborns, Iphigenia is rarely among them.

That’s because Iphigenia is offered up as a sacrifice by her own father, military leader Agamemnon, to appease a goddess. After his army has assembled to sail to Troy for war, there’s no wind to move the ships, causing his bloodthirsty soldiers to become restless and angry.

Agamemnon learns that he has somehow offended Artemis, goddess of hunting and the wilderness, and must surrender his eldest daughter to make the winds blow again. He lies to his wife, Clytemnestra, that Iphigenia is to be married to legendary warrior Achilles, and that she should send their daughter to him forthwith.

So much for Greek family values.

Director Marcela Lorca has tapped a high-wattage cast of Twin Cities stage stars, including Regina Marie Williams, Steven Epp and Sally Wingert, to tell the story. But it is the music, sung by a mass choir, that will help drive the 90-minute one-act to its tragic climax.

“There’s so much beauty and poignancy in J.D.’s compositions, which are absolutely gorgeous,” said Lorca. “It makes the play feel like an exultation instead of a tragedy.”

Marrying East and West

For Steele, composing for a show like this allows him to marry “notes from the East and the West,” he said. “The show unites different influences and sensibilities, and the music tries to lift the story when it gets down.”

Steele comes to “Iphigenia” with a burnished pedigree. He worked for years on “The Gospel at Colonus,” performing the 1980s Lee Breuer layering of African American gospel music atop Greek tragedy on Broadway and across the globe, including at the Parthenon, the famed Greek temple.

“Iphigenia” continues his exploration of similar themes.

“The music is modern, for that’s what Marcela wanted for our audiences, but with a Mideastern, even Arabic feel,” said Steele. “Music can do that, show that we’re all in the same world together.”

Lorca appreciates the way music can immediately enter an audience’s body, communicating in ways that spoken words lack.

“What happens when you have a lot of music in a tragedy, the music amplifies and elevates the emotion,” said Lorca. “But it also tells the larger context of the story. The chorus is always asking the deeper question of ‘How did we get here?’ “

Paradoxically, Lorca continued, adding music to a tragedy sometimes creates a dynamic disparity between what the main characters are going through and what the chorus is singing. She likens the contrast to pulling in different directions.

“The tragedy keeps going downhill to the depths while the chorus keeps climbing the mountain higher and higher,’ she said. “By the end, you have this exultation with a deep descent into tragedy. It’s a huge breadth between those two images.”

Building on collaboration

“Iphigenia” marks Steele and Lorca’s fourth collaboration on a Greek tragedy. Famously, they partnered on Seamus Heaney’s “The Burial at Thebes” at the Guthrie in fall 2011. They first worked together on “Iphigenia” in spring 2011, for a Guthrie Theater/University of Minnesota BFA class.

Only two of the songs that Steele composed for that student production are used in this “Iphigenia,” he said. “We learned a thing or two since then.”

The show will be performed both indoors at the new Luminary Arts Center in Minneapolis and outdoors at Powderhorn Park and Waterworks Park in Minneapolis and Everwood Farmstead in Wisconsin. The combined choir is drawn from the likes of Capri Glee, MacPhail Community Youth Choir and the Mill City Singers.

This tragedy speaks to us today because we live in uncertain times, Lorca said.

“We have to face our challenges together, not by ourselves — that’s the big lesson of the play,” said Lorca. “It behooves us to come together as a community.”

Steele was a little more blunt about how he sees the show resonating. He loves that he’s able to add uplifting music but the story remains stark.

“Human beings haven’t changed much since 400 B.C.,” he said.

Iphigenia at Aulis
Who: Translated from Euripides’ play by W.S. Merwin. Directed by Marcela Lorca with compositions by J.D. Steele.
When & where: 6 p.m. Fri. & Sat., Powderhorn Park, Mpls.; 4 p.m. Sun., Everwood Farmstead, Glenwood City, Wis.; 6 p.m. Sept. 15-17, 4 p.m. Sept. 18; Waterworks Park, Mpls. From Sept. 21-Oct. 2, 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 4 p.m. Sundays, Luminary Arts Center, 700 N. 1st St., Mpls.
Tickets: $35 general admission or pay as you can. 612-203-9502 or

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