Student Play ‘ANAGNORISIS’ Sculpts Ancient Identities

“ANAGNORISIS” explores the story of women in Greek tragedies, playing on the literary term for the moment when a character recognizes that their situation is tragic.

If ancient sculptures could speak, what would they say? 

The Department of Fine and Performing Arts theatre program explores this question in the intimate, vignette-style play “ANAGNORISIS,” developed and directed by Grace Elizabeth Mealey in partnership with the Women in Theater Ensemble and the production’s dramaturg Carmella Whipple

The play, made up of a seven-woman ensemble, was a series of different stories featuring women from Greek mythology. Mealey said she developed the piece by combining the ancient texts of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles with existing Greek artworks that depict the myths they wrote about. 

Although the play’s historically-based, nontraditional nature made it somewhat difficult to follow, the overall product was emotionally resonant. The actors poignantly portrayed the respective plights of different mythical women, fostering a contemporary emotional connection with iconic yet overlooked characters from antiquity. 

The title, “ANAGNORISIS,” comes from the Greek word referencing the point in a tragedy when a character recognizes the truth of their situation or identity, according to Merriam-Webster. Focusing on a variety of mythical narratives  — developed from versions of the myths translated by women — the play explored the identities of the women behind Greek heroes. 

Each vignette followed the story of a different moment of anagnorisis — from Euripides’ Medea realizing she must kill her sons to Sophocles’ Jocasta realizing her husband, Oedipus, is also her son. 

The stories were framed by a distinct reference to a Greek work of art based on the myth being told. The artwork was projected onto a screen directly behind the performers who paused at the precise moment in the production that mirrored the work behind them. 

This intersectional storytelling — ancient myth, visual art and live performance — amalgamated into a cohesive and thought-provoking project that highlighted the distinct plight of each character.

The power of combining fine art with theater was apparent from the play’s inception, as each woman seemed to become their own tableau vivant when they walked onstage. They stared out past the audience, standing in a straight line, seeming to recognize something in the distance only they could see. 

Suddenly, the lights changed and they all languidly posed together, mimicking the statue “Parthenon pediment sculptures from Athens” — commonly known as the “Elgin Marbles” — projected behind them. Introducing the actors and beginning the play in this way effectively exposed the audience to the performance’s thesis before the stories began.

However, the sophisticated language of the script combined with the ancient subject matter and constant shifting of characters made the play somewhat difficult to follow. This was compounded by the lack of direct explanation to which myth they were referencing, especially since the female leads of each story were only sometimes named. 

However, there’s something to be said for the slight anonymity of the leads. An audience member’s lack of context emphasized the female characters’ lack of historical notoriety. 

Since there was no explicit statement of which story was being referenced, one had to pay close attention to the story at hand, allowing the viewer to experience their own form of anagnorisis with the character. 

Artistic emotion was especially apparent in actor Maeve McMahon, who played the role of Medea, as well as other supplementary male roles — most notably, Oedipus. In both of these vignettes, McMahon’s emotion was captivating as she portrayed each myth’s tragic moment of realization. 

Staring angrily out at the audience — which was addressed by the play as entirely female — McMahon as Medea sorrowfully justified her plan to murder her children, preemptively grieving. 

“I am a luckless woman,” McMahon said. 

The scene ended with McMahon holding a knife up to one of the actors who played her son. They paused just before the moment of death, mirroring “red figure neck amphora” — a Grecian representation of the murder on an ancient pot — which was projected behind them. 

Offering commentary on not only the overlooked struggles of mythical women from Greece but also the continued lack of recognition for contemporary women, the play commented on feminine strifes regarding family, agency and sacrifice. 

These themes came to light in the play’s final vignette which followed the story of Iphigenia, played by Samantha Massi. The story begins at the moment when Iphigenia is told by her father, the king Agammenon, that she must be sacrificed in order for the Greeks to sail to Troy. 

Iphigenia takes her fate gracefully, telling her distraught mother not to grieve, explaining that she is honored to be remembered as the savior of Greece. 

Looking out past the audience with tears in her eyes, the other actresses returned to the stage. They stood behind her, preparing to mimic the final work of art “fresco from the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii,” which portrays Iphigenia’s sacrifice. 

“And now, and now, beloved light,” Massi says, reaching up her cupped hands towards the sky. “Farewell.”

Featured image by Hanna Houser / The Phoenix

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