At the bottom of a hill near a Squirrel Hill entrance to Frick Park, a handful of folding chairs are set in a few rows. A couple of torches are lit to keep away the pests (not including critics) and three young woman in off-white shifts loll about. Soon a figure glides in from the distance. She turns out to be Clytemnestra, the women are the Chorus and Ellen McLaughlin's Iphigenia and Other Daughters, a Pittsburgh premiere by Alarum Theatre company, comes to life.
Here McLaughlin revisits the Greek legend The Oresteia. For those who were in the nurse's office the day we covered that, let me remind you: In order to please the gods and win the Trojan War, King Agamemnon (Mr. Clytemnestra) sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia. In revenge, Clytemnestra murders him and for 20 years sits at home with her two other daughters, Chrysothemis and Electra (remember her and her complex?). They're waiting for the other kid, Orestes, to return from some endless war — at which point, it has been foretold, he will kill his mother. Which just sets off another round of vengeance ... you know those ancient Greeks.
McLaughlin certainly does, and from out of this tale, by focusing exclusively on the women, she has crafted a wonderfully intelligent and thought-provoking play. History tends to be a nonstop of litany of battles and wars and sieges and skirmishes — written by men, about men, for men. McLaughlin's play puts women's lives (and deaths) front and center, on equal footing with the Great Men of the Past.
She's a writer of considerable skill, as this 1994 play demonstrates, and Alarum Theatre does her justice. Director Shannon Knapp invisibly conjures a production that is both mysterious and explicit. Though now and again everyone seems to be aware they are Performing Important Work, on the whole the evening is subtle and sharp, featuring a uniformly impressive cast — Elizabeth Farina, Kaitlin Kerr, Alyssa LaVacca, Abby Lis-Perlis, Connor Shiroshita Pickett, Moire Quigley and Madelyn Tomko.
To tell you the truth, these nutty Greeks and their loopy fairytales usually leave me cold; who knew Alarum and McLaughlin could warm me up?