August 28, 2007

Waging War With "Iphigenia 2.0"

The great ancient Greek playwright Euripides seems to have written, and named, as many of his plays about women as he did about men. Over the years, I've enjoyed watching the tragic passions of Medea and Electra play out on stage. And I've wished that contemporary playwrights wrote such powerful female roles. But I confess I knew nothing about Iphigenia until the Signature Theatre Company announced that Charles Mee's adaptation of Euripedes' Iphigenia in Tauris, called Iphigenia 2.0, was going to open its new season devoted to Mee's work. So I'm not sure why I decided to go see it.

Maybe it was that the Greeks have become so trendy from Princeton professor Robert Fagles' popular translations of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" to Oliver Stone's ill-conceived biopic of Alexander the Great to the recent reopening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's glorious Greek and Roman galleries. Or that I was so taken with Mee's personal story as an artist who came into his own during his 50s and makes the complete text of his plays available online (click here to see
Iphigenia 2.0's and more about Mee). Or that I was intrigued by the parallels between the folly of the Trojan War and the folly of the war in Iraq. Or that I thought it would be fun to see "Star Trek's" Kate Mulgrew bite into the role of the indomitable Clytemnestra. Or that I thought a dose of what we used to call avant-garde theater—Mee is known for his experimental "collages" that juxtapose classical and pop cultural references, while 2.0’s director Tina Landau is celebrated for her mixed media productions that combine theater, dance, music and video—would be good for me.

Whatever the reason, I got both less and more than I bargained for. In Euripedes' telling of the
story, the gods won't send winds to carry the ships bearing Agamemnon and his troops to Troy unless the warrior-king sacrifices his beloved daughter Iphigenia; in Mee's modern-dress reinterpretation, Agamemnon's soldiers refuse to risk their lives until he's willing to suffer a loss of his own by giving up the girl's life. In both versions, Agamemnon agonizes over his decision, Clytemnestra threatens vengeance if he does the deed and Iphigenia, as so many Greek heroines do, takes the weight and steps up to do her duty.

Iphigenia 2.0 is pure theatrical spectacle, which I usually love but this time, there was just too much going on. The performance styles range from the histrionics of Mulgrew's grieving Clytemnestra to the martial gymnastics of Agamemnon's buff soldiers. There are "Zorba The Greek"-style bouzouki music, hip-hop dance numbers and a couple of onstage rapes. They all whir together in a chaotic fantasia that I confess I couldn't keep up with it. At the end of the 90-minute production, the equally befuddled audience at the performance I attended sat silent for about 15 seconds after the final lights dimmed until someone started a tepid and somewhat embarrassed round of applause.

I left the theater thinking that the production was a mess. But then it started haunting me. As I always do, when I'm befuddled, I started reading. I read about Iphigenia, which I advise you to do before you go; the run has been extended until Oct. 7. I read about Mee and his philosophy on theater. And I read the reviews—many, but not all, of them laudatory. The more I read, the more fascinated I became with Mee, if not with this production, which in the end seems too self-conscious and unfocused. But fascinated enough that I intend to go back to the Signature Company's Peter Norton Space to see Mee's other works over the coming months. Sometimes, as a former lover—a painter whose work I didn't appreciate enough—said to me, unsettling you is what art is supposed to do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am grateful for your interesting, essay-cum-review of this Iphigenia, because wild horses wouldn't be able to drag me to another project of Mee's. Though he's the darling of a number of New York's influential critics, his work has been a bummer for me on every occasion I've had to experience it. Perhaps the first time I saw a play of his was at the New York Theater Workshop. It was called "First Love," and it was about a couple of seventy-somethings. Appalling and appallingly self-congratulatory. Several times, the talented Martha Clarke has chosen him as a collaborator... much to her detriment, I think. And now the Signature is devoting a season to him?! Ugh. I feel sure that the time I spent reading your blog post was more entertaining and enlightening than his work will/could be.