FROM BLOOD TO PRAYER: TWO PLAYS ABOUT WOMEN AND SACRIFICE

"Iphigenia and Other Daughters" by Ellen McLaughlin; "The Conquest of the School of Madhubaï" by Hélène Cixous (Washington University Performing Arts Department)

You don't have to hang around theater folk very long before some woman actor or director will point out a major inequity: the paucity of meaty roles for women. For every Elisa Dolittle, there are 50 Henry Higginses; for every Cleopatra, a multitude of Antonies. At least as distressing is the lack of strong secondary parts. Instead of anything meaningful, women play supportive wives and girlfriends, barmaids, mothers-in-law and occasionally a winsome daughter. Hardly enough to keep the mind (and heart) alive.

In her notes on "Iphigenia and Other Daughters" — one of the two intelligent, interesting but undeniably artsy one-act plays Washington University offered for consideration last weekend — Ellen McLaughlin says, "I believe that most women feel, deep down, that they are not part of the real history of mankind, the important stuff, the heroic stuff, the stuff that matters." She concludes her brief comment by saying, "This ("Iphigenia and Other Daughters') is an exceedingly intimate play, familial, female. This is not the kind of sphere within which one is used to examining notions of history. That's what's interesting to me about it."

McLaughlin makes it interesting to the rest of us, too, by retelling some Greek myths (previously dramatized by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides) concerning the women of the cursed house of Atreus. She removes both the gods and the heroes from earlier formulations, setting mother Clytemnestra and daughters Electra and Chrysothemis free to take centerstage to speak of their powerlessness and lack of identity apart from the men of the family. As her Electra says, "I was somebody's daughter, then somebody's sister — that got me up in the morning."

The play's director, Robert Neblett, a doctoral candidate at the university, almost guaranteed the success of this production with his casting. Bevin Ross (Iphigenia), Jennifer Worth (Clytemnestra), Khamara Pettus (Electra), Ellen Ketels (Chrysothemis) and Paul Pagano (Orestes) give polished performances — the result of innate ability, to be sure, but careful rehearsal as well. There's some busy stuff in both the text — McLaughlin has an unfortunate tendency of becoming a bit too high-flown — and its realization, but Neblett's quick pace and intelligent blocking hurry us past the sticky and cloying bits.

Bonnie Taylor, who directs Hélène Cixous' "The Conquest of the School of Madhubaï" is well known as one of the area's most powerful actors. She has been, alas, more or less absent from the stage for the past several years to finish a doctorate. This one-act play is, as far as we know, her first essay as a director. Like Neblett, Taylor has cast her play with wonderful actors, particularly nonstudents Patricia McLaughlin and Dan Shea, although senior Tijuana Ricks is genuinely powerful as the play's protagonist. The distinguished Indian dancer Asha Prem and her student Allison Koop provide much-needed color to an hour with a lot of talk in it.

Cixous based "The Conquest of the School of Madhubaï" on the real life of one Phoolan Devi, an Indian lower-caste woman of our time who rebelled against the appalling life her caste and sex had thrust on her and became a Robin Hood-like bandit and folk heroine. Where "Iphigenia and Other Daughters" deals with the lives of queens and princesses, Cixous puts us in a poor rural village in the midst of the monsoons. The set is the hut of Pandala (McLaughlin), an elderly neighbor who is a surrogate mother to Sakundeva (Ricks), the "bandit queen" whose latest outrage was the well-merited slaughter of a rival gang whose members had raped her. She has arranged to meet the provincial minister (Rahul Kukreti) there to negotiate surrender. Each of the characters also has an "eye," another actor or dancer who either mimes (Prem for McLaughlin, Koop for Ricks) or speaks the thoughts (Shea for Kukreti) of the character. The combination of McLaughlin and Prem is particularly telling, for McLaughlin creates an immensely appealing and touching character, and Prem is at her delicate and elegant best.

Both plays of the evening thoughtfully dramatized a couple of important myths regarding women; both offered some wonderful parts for women. That the problems both plays raised were resolved unsatisfactorily seems a small matter, considering what each had to offer. More plays by, for and concerning women is a good idea, especially if they receive productions as strong as those Wash. U. gave them last weekend.

 
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