In his imaginatively conceived plays, Charles Mee raises wildly provocative ideas that never quite jell in production: An ideal choice, it seems, for the saturation treatment that the Signature Theater Company gives to one playwright each season. No better work to open with, either, than “Iphigenia 2.0,” a radical reinterpretation of a classical Greek story Mee re-casts in contemporary terms for a nation caught up in a dubious war. But while the play opens strong, its brooding thoughts remain undeveloped in Tina Landau’s production, a showy piece with shocking imagery, but little direct light.
Although Euripides approached the ancient story with the most heart, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and just about every hack around in 400 B.C. Athens had a go at the material. Which was irresistible indeed, with its towering central figure of Agamemnon, a great king who dragged his country into an ill-advised war and was persuaded that sacrificing his youngest and most beloved child would appease the angry gods.
Landau gets the production on the right track by staging the events in a surreal alley of the king’s mental landscape. In Blythe R.D. Quinlan’s bleak design for this no-man’s land, a great civilization is reduced to a chandelier-lighted room tucked away upstage, a rough map scrawled on a side wall, and heaps of rubble piled up around sunken pits. Off to the right, an old Greek Man (Angelo Niakas) mutely whitewashes a wall — the only indication that, to some people, this awful place is still home.
Mee’s Agamemnon (Tom Nelis) is nothing like Euripides’ powerful monarch as he paces out the boundaries of this barren spot and agonizes over his decision to sacrifice his daughter to appease the disgruntled soldiers in his army who are threatening to revolt. But although the lanky, pallid Nelis bears no resemblance to the sitting U.S. prexy, Agamemnon’s tight-lipped defense of his deception used to get Iphigenia (Louisa Krause, all perky and innocent) to Aulis — she thinks she is to be wed to a war hero — sounds like Pentagon weasel-think.
We’re still with Mee and Landau as they turn the screws on the anxious monarch. Four young soldiers in U.S. military camouflage, a chorus for the legions in revolt, assert they will not set sail for Troy, “unless you make a sacrifice that means as much to you as their lives mean to them.”
The justification is specious, but Mee gives it an edge that makes you think it over: “This should be the requirement placed on any leader who would engage in any enterprise that puts at risk the lives of others.”
The intellectual arguments don’t heat up, though, until the distraught Achilles (Seth Numrich) attacks Agamemnon for the duplicity of using him as bait to lure Iphigenia to her death. Numrich’s earnest show of anguish adds genuine emotion to the dilemma, while giving it a fresh moral perspective.
But something goes seriously haywire once the virginal Iphigenia shows up with her mother Clytemnestra (the lioness Kate Mulgrew) and two giddy bridesmaids (Emily Kinney and Chasten Harmon) for her presumed wedding to Achilles.
Apart from Clytemnestra’s desperate attempt to seduce Achilles into rescuing Iphigenia (an emotionally charged and perversely funny scene, in Mulgrew’s bold perf), the stylized effects swamp the very ideas they are supposed to expand and illuminate.
At precisely the moment in the script when Agamemnon’s agony should devour his soul, Landau deflects attention away from him by making the remainder of the show into a total romp. Before the bloody finale, no vintage experimental theater staging trick is left unturned for the bogus wedding, as the girls become celebrity brats and the soldiers become sex-crazed maniacs and everyone joins hands for bizarre Greek wedding dances.
There is always the possibility, of course, that Mee welcomes the extreme stylization of his work. Having presented the dilemmas of war as cogently and vividly as he could, maybe he’s happy to have a production of such sound and fury that no one will notice he never actually resolved the ideological issues he raised.