Euripides’ “Ion,” a rule-breaking Greek tragedy abounding in mistaken identities, gets a rare production in this year’s 47th annual Classical Greek Theatre Festival.

With great comic irony, the play of mistaken identities unfolds the coming-to-identity story of Ion and Creusa. He’s a naive teenage orphan who doesn’t know his parentage or even his name. She’s the queen of Athens, a supposedly childless woman with a secret: As a young woman, she was raped in a cave by the god Apollo, and in her shame, she abandoned her baby.

Tamari Dunbar plays Creusa and Brandt Garber plays Ion in the Greek tragic-comedy
Tamari Dunbar plays Creusa and Brandt Garber plays Ion in the Greek tragic-comedy "Ion." (Courtesy Gavan Nelson)

It’s a story concerned with infidelity and betrayal, perhaps even post-rape PTSD, but it’s also a story about parenting. “At its heart, it’s about a mother and a son who have been lost to one another,” says director Andra Harbold, who lauds the compression and pacing of David Lan’s recent translation. “In some ways, it feels so modern. I think it’s funny and moving, and it defies so many expectations we have of what Greek tragedy is.”

Harbold has transported the action to Delphi in the 1950s. The production features a girl-group Greek chorus, singing European-style doo-wop with idiosyncratic flair.

“Ion’s” set design and costumes are inspired by the visual world of “Roman Holiday,” the 1953 Gregory Peck-Audrey Hepburn classic, with original music composed by Jennifer Jackson, a music and sound design instructor at the University of Utah.

That backdrop provides “a context in which societal norms and expectations and gender roles have a resonance that it wouldn’t have if it were set now,” or in a Greek setting, she says. That offers immediacy, “but also gives us a distance to reflect back and to not block ourselves from those issues.”

Euripides might be considered the bad boy of Greek playwrights in the way he broke the rules of the genre. Unlike most writers of Greek tragedies, the playwright invented, rather than borrowed, the story. With its Hollywood-style happy ending and melodramatic plot coincidences, “Ion” might even be considered the first comedy of the Western tradition, says Jim Svendson, the festival’s founder and artistic director.

“No children — in fact, not one at all — will be killed in ‘Ion,’ ” Svendson writes in his annual Top 10 list of reasons to see the Greek play. Svendson, a retired University of Utah classics and theater professor who jokingly refers to himself as a “Greek geek,” offers orientations 30 minutes before each performance.

“Ion” features a prologue by the god Hermes, “who pretty much tells us everything we needs to know,” Svendson says. “It’s the longest prologue in Greek tragedy, and it’s a wonderful thing in terms of dramatic irony. After the audience has heard the prologue, they’re in on it. They know what’s going to happen. It’s the silly people onstage who are befuddled, and who almost kill each other for silly reasons.”

Going Greek

The 47th annual Classical Greek Theatre Festival tour offers the rarely produced tragic comedy “Ion.” New this year: Outdoor show will be Sept. 22 at West Valley City’s Utah Cultural Celebration Center amphitheater (instead of Red Butte Garden), an event that includes an alcohol permit.

When • 7:30 p.m. Sept. 7; continues Sept. 8-9 and 14-16, 7:30 p.m.

Where • Westminster College’s Courage Theatre, 1250 E. 1700 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets • At the door or 801-832-2457 or westminstercollege.edu/greek_theatre

When • 7:30 p.m., Sept. 19

Where • Weber State University Wildcat Theater, Odgen

Tickets • $8-$10; WeberStateTickets.com

When • 7:30 p.m., Sept. 22

Where • Utah Cultural Celebration Center Amphitheater, 1355 W. 3100 South, West Valley City

Tickets • $18 ($9 students); 801-965-5100 or culturalcelebration.org/ion.html

When • 5 p.m., Sept. 25

Where • De Jong Concert Hall, Brigham Young University, Provo

Tickets • $9-$12; arts.byu.edu/event/greek-theatre-festival-ion

More • Orientation lecture at each venue 30 minutes before the show


The cast of
The cast of "Ion," this year's Greek tragedy-comedy, produced as part of the 47th annual Classical Greek Theatre Festival. (Courtesy Gavan Nelson)