REVIEW: Effie (The Neapolitans)

When ‘Gossip Girl’ meets Orwell’s 1984

effie-poster

 
The Neapolitans present
 
Effie
 
by Cory Tamler
directed by Brea Hayes
at EP Theater, 1820 S. Halsted (map)
thru May 9th  |  tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

So many things go wrong with The Neapolitans’ production of Effie. Written by Cory Tamler and directed by Brea Hayes, they attempt a modern retelling of EuripidesIphigenia, wherein Agamemnon is President of the United States, Clytemnestra, or Clyta (Anna Carini) is First Lady, Achillles (Andrew Burden Swanson) is their daughter’s fiancé, and Iphigenia, or Effie (Hilary Williams), is the sacrificial victim. On stage at EP Theatre, it’s a premise we are all meant to take seriously—no comedy, satire or irony here. The play is meant to have modern political and social import because, in this dystopian fantasy of America, the bombings of the Twin Towers on 9/11 were not the end. Instead, in Effie, terrorists have hit city after city, reducing America to an unstable wreck of a security-compromised nation.

effie-poster How like Iraq. A couple of years ago, I read an essay by an Iraqi journalist about the trials and tribulations of trying to drive to work in the morning in Baghdad. Just getting from point A to point B meant driving through a gauntlet of checkpoints at which terrorist attacks could take place at any moment. In fact, being stopped at a checkpoint made one more vulnerable to attack. He wrote of his daily experience that the moment of attack would be unknown, the type of attack was unknown, the group behind the attack was unknown, and the reasons for the attack were unknown.

The stiff and drawn-out exposition at the beginning of Effie attempts, but fails, to establish the tone of danger and uncertainty in the state of the nation. Plus, such striking similarities between this play’s dystopian USA and recent daily life in Iraq go completely unacknowledged, leaving it utterly untapped for dramatic resonance.

On with the premise: as a last ditch effort to save America from the terrorists, Agamemnon calls on his daughter to become the first suicide bomber—a lovely symbolic gesture that the government hopes will inspire other Americans, perhaps especially young Americans, to become suicide bombers. Near the end of the play, crowds gather to urge Effie on to her glorious, patriotic fate. In the end, just as in Euripides’ classic, Effie willingly submits herself with some protestation, some tears, but not too much ado.

This story has been told many times before and in much better ways. In fact, this version makes me tremble in terror—not that our country could end up like this—but that the playwright and the producers themselves seem so blindly obsessed with romancing the jihad – Christian style. Without irony it asks what would get people to commit the ultimate sacrifice for their country—as if there aren’t Americans already sacrificing for their country now. Well, mostly poor and working class Americans are, but let’s come back to that later.

This play depicts NO dissent, raised in any coherent or consistent manner, against the suicide bomber notion. NO characters provide decent counterpoint as to whether suicide bombing is needed. More importantly, no character asks whether suicide bombing will actually stop terrorist attack. NOTHING politically aware or militarily feasible penetrates the bubble around this tawdry melodrama about an elite family. (I mean, the military has developed drones for attack. Why turn to live suicide bombers?) Yet the audience is called upon to take their melodrama and its political possibilities seriously. Finally, the work is rife with all the self-absorption of “Gossip Girl” — again without a scintilla of irony or a hint of fun.

Tragically, the Neapolitans are in way over their heads with this retelling—but are they even aware how far and how deeply they have stepped in it? At one point, Achilles, Effie’s fiancé, lectures her on the value of knowing history. Then he proceeds to say that nothing happened during the Cold War, it was all a stalemate. There is no counterpoint to this statement; again, nothing indicates that the audience should take it ironically. Everything points to giving Achilles’ dialogue credibility.

Really? Nothing happened during the Cold War? A little thing called Vietnam happened during the Cold War–it happened because of the Cold War. Furthermore, America’s active participation with troops in Vietnam began with a little thing called the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. On August 4, 1964, President Johnson went before the American people and pronounced that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had twice fired on an American destroyer in an unprovoked attack in the Gulf of Tonkin. It was a lie. It was a lie that the American media then ran with. It was a lie that started Vietnam for real for Americans and ended up sacrificing 50,000 American lives–most of them averaging 18 years of age.

Young people are always being asked to sacrifice their lives by older people who start and maintain wars–conventional wars or the War On Terror. It’s just that privileged young people usually get exempted from having to make that sacrifice. Is that what makes Effie’s sacrifice special?–that she’s a rich, privileged, sheltered and self-absorbed teenager being called to a sacrifice that’s de rigueur for poor and working class kids during times of war? If Effie’s being called to sacrifice, is it because all the drones have failed and all the poor and working class kids have already died in the war and now the country must use her to rally the youth of the upper classes–if they haven’t escaped to Canada already?

Have The Neapolitans really thought this thing through?

Let us kindly rename this play a work in progress, not a “world premiere,” as touted in the press release. If there is one scene worth salvaging for further development, it’s the one in which Effie realizes, “I don’t get to be a person . . . I’m such a pawn, I might as well be made of plastic.” That moment is golden.

Hilary Williams pulls out the stops to play Effie sympathetically, without denying her character’s total self-absorption. Anna Carini makes one tough, stylish, dangerous, and maternally flawed Clytemnestra. The Chorus (Brandon Thompson and Danielle Maihoffer) takes a while to warm up. Awkward exposition provides many speed bumps for them through the beginning of the play. But the cleverness of their presence in the piece eventually reveals itself; their final sections are also worth saving. As Achilles, Swanson is given the burden of pronouncing that ridiculous dialogue about knowing your history. The scene between Achilles and Clyta also bogs down under maudlin melodramatic weight. It is truly difficult to tell if the fault is in the dialogue or the acting.

Stefin Stebert’s production design provides some style in costuming and a decidedly stylish upper class apartment for the set. Alas, good style cannot save Effie in its current incarnation.

What if peace could be guaranteed by the sacrifice of one human life? What if the life were yours?” Such is the statement printed in bold graphics on the cover of the play’s program. I think The Neapolitans are being deeply sincere in asking that question.

Well, if peace really and truly can be guaranteed by the sacrifice of one human life—as The Neapolitans suggest it can–then that life is not going to be mine. If an unaware, apolitical, 16-year-old girl from a twisted political family will take my place, so much the better. If she is so plastic, she allows herself to be led to the slaughter even when the alternative lies right at her elbow, well then bon voyage. If she is so ignorant of history, she can’t even detect the ignorance of her fiancé while he lectures her about being ignorant of history, then perhaps she was too sheltered or stupid to survive in this world anyway. Daddy is sacrificing you; Mom is sleeping with your boyfriend; and your pontificating boyfriend has been fucking you and your mother at the same time. Maybe it is time to die.

That death may indeed be tragic, but you can’t make me care about the life that is being sacrificed. Not when real people’s lives are being sacrificed to the two wars we are currently in and with an economic crisis brought on our heads by financial elites playing with our future.

 
 
Rating:  ★½
 
 

 

EFFIE – a retelling of EuripidesIphigenia
Running April 22-May 9: Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays @ 7:30pm
Sundays @ 3:00pm, EP Theater, 1820 S. Halsted, Chicago

conceived by Brea Hayes and ensemble
written by Cory Tamler
directed by Brea Hayes
production design by Stefin Steberl
lighting design by Nic Jones

ensemble: Anna Carini, Danielle Maihofer, Andrew Swanson, Brandon Thompson, Hilary Williams

tickets: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/108301 or 773-255-6675.


Playwright Info:

The writer, Cory Tamler, has an extensive production background which has noticeably lent itself to creating this spectacular production. Tamler has had work produced in Pittsburg, New York, Chicago and Germany, and is quickly creating a name for herself in Chicago as she continues to help create successful productions. She has recently been drafted to work on a collaboration in Maine at the Open Waters Theater.

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