Utah festival’s ‘Ion’ gives Greek tragedy a funky 1950s flair in a production that breaks all the rules

Review • The Classical Greek Theatre Festival’s lively production is consistently surprising and entertaining.

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

As the lights come up, a group of characters stand strung out across the stage reading newspapers with their backs to the audience. A burst of wind blows the papers away, and the play begins.

This playful, free-spirited image sets the tone for the Classical Greek Theatre Festival’s buoyant production of Euripides’ seldom-staged “Ion.” In its 47th year, the festival is the longest-running celebration of Greek tragedy in the country.

But can this be Greek tragedy? There’s not a single death or disaster, it has a happy ending, and all the characters get what they most desire. Part of the answer lies with Euripides’ innate rebelliousness; he loved to break established rules, and since he invented this story instead of adapting a traditional myth, he could do exactly what he wanted.

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

But this production owes its upbeat flavor to the collaboration between Alexandra Harbold’s imaginative direction and David Lan’s clever, colloquial translation. Those opening figures become gods and humans to act out Hermes’ long background story that starts the play and then morph into the birds that congregate on the plaza before Apollo’s shrine. Finally, they become the Athenian servants of Queen Creusa that constitute the chorus. Harbold and Lan consistently inject energy and variety into Euripides’ script.

At its heart, “Ion” is a search for family and home. Creusa has come to Apollo’s shrine in Delphi to ask the god if she and her husband, Xuthus, will ever have children and discover what became of the baby she was forced to abandon years before. Ion is a foundling who knows neither father nor mother; Apollo’s priestess, Pythia, raised him to become caretaker of the shrine. United by suffering and longing, the two feel an immediate bond that deepens as the play unfolds.

Brandt Garber’s tall, gangly Ion captures the angst, indecisiveness and constantly conflicting emotions of a typical teenager, while Tamari Dunbar deftly balances Creusa’s bitterness and sense of betrayal with her desire for family and need to control her destiny. Euripides had great empathy for women, and Creusa and the chorus chastise gods and men for victimizing them. “You play as you please,” complains Creusa. “Who pays? We women.”

The play showcases Euripidean elements: There are several messengers and interventions by the gods, and the characters are caught between the overpowering influence of fate and chance and the faulty choices of frail humans. Rather than struggle against the melodrama, Harbold and Lan take a lighter approach, emphasizing the humor without sacrificing the more tender moments.

Jen Jackson has created lively music echoing the styles of the 1950s and ’60s, and the four women in the chorus — Stacey Jenson, Merry Magee, Sydney Shoell and Katelyn Limber — harmonize like a girl-group pop quartet. Shannon McCullock’s eclectic costumes echo that era but make a sharp distinction between the stylish Athenians and the classical, more traditional garb of those at Delphi. Hermes, the messenger to the gods, looks as if he escaped from Western Union.

Holly Fowers is feisty and funny as Creusa’s old servant, and Aaron Adams contributes a self-righteous, authoritarian Xuthus. Tyler Palo and Alec James Kalled are agile, animated messengers.

“After everything we’ve seen, can anything seem strange?” the chorus asks. If your idea of Greek drama is gloom and doom, treat yourself to this entertaining production of “Ion.” Go a half-hour early and catch festival founder Jim Svendsen’s insightful orientation.

Ion<br>The Classical Greek Theatre Festival’s lively production is consistently surprising and entertaining.<br>Running time • 90 minutes (no intermission)<br>Salt Lake City<br>When •  Continues Thursday through Saturday, Sept. 14-16, at 7:30 p.m. <br> Where • Jay W. Lees Courage Theatre, Westminster College, 1250 E. 1700 South<br>Tickets • $18; $9 for students; 801-832-2457 or westminstercollege.edu/greek_theatre<br>Ogden<br>When • Tuesday, Sept. 19, at 7:30 p.m.<br>Where • Wildcat Theatre, Weber State University<br>Tickets • $8–$10 at WeberStateTickets.com<br> West Valley City<br>When • Friday, Sept. 22, at 7:30 p.m.<br>Where • Utah Cultural Celebration Center Amphitheater, 1355 W. 3100 South<br>Tickets • $18; $9 for students; 801-965-5100 or culturalcelebration.org/ion.html<br>Provo<br>When • Monday, Sept. 25, at 5 p.m.<br>Where • DeJong Concert Hall, Brigham Young University<br>Tickets • $12; $9 for students; arts.byu.edu/event/greek-theatre-festival-ion

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