When the Ancient Greeks looked for a source of wisdom, they looked to Plato or Sophocles or Aristotle. Perhaps they consulted the Delphic Oracle. Where they didn't look was to Olympus. The Greek gods, who made their home there, were a petty bunch of scoundrels, bickering among themselves, but more often preoccupied with incest, adultery, kidnapping, rape, or just stirring up malicious mischief to relieve their boredom.
One of the most famous of the Olympian stories, and a cautionary tale for all time, is the myth of the Trojan War, the worst of the Olympian gang's mischief. It began as an obnoxious quarrel among Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite over who was most beautiful -- a quarrel stirred up by Eris who wasn't invited to a party. She tossed a golden apple into their midst saying it was for the most beautiful.
Paris, the handsomest of men, was given the Bert Parks role, and each goddess bribed him with something special in exchange for the apple if he'd choose her. Did he choose power? Nah. Wealth? Nah. The gorgeous broad Helen? Yes he did. In fact, he kidnapped her and carried her back to Troy to the chagrin of Menelaus, her husband, who wanted her back.
So what did Menelaus do? He went to his brother, Agamemnon, and said we gotta get those guys. Let's go to war and kill 'em all. And so an unprovoked attack was unleashed on the Trojan people. But there was a problem. Before they could set sail, the army needed wind, and wouldn't you know, the gods stopped the wind from blowing because Menelaus mistakenly shot Artemis' deer. But there was a ready solution. Just sacrifice the young Iphigenia, Agamemnon's daughter, and the winds would blow again.
This story is the basis of Charles Mee's play, "Iphigenia 2.0," the 2.0 part giving you a clue that an updated version of the myth will be unveiled, and so it is. And don't think it doesn't have anything to do with our invasion of Iraq.
But Mee, a complex playwright, changes this story a bit and addresses not only the consequences of war, but skillfully interweaves it with what is probably one of psychology's most oft-studied relationships, that of mother and daughter. Clytemnestra and Iphigenia represent the eternal mother-daughter relationship. Mother will do anything to save her daughter, daughter will do as she pleases, and father is there to screw it up for everyone.
Produced on a bare stage, filled with construction materials, Agamemnon enters and speaks to us from downstage center, explaining in Aristotelian logic how empires are brought down by the actions leaders take, caused by the leadersï¿½ inherent flaws. Tragedy defined, catharsis awaits. How can he, a leader, ask soldiers to sacrifice their lives while he lives the good life. Where is the honor in that?
Enter Menelaus, in full-dress military uniform, along with four camouflage-covered GIs, Meeï¿½s Greek chorus, explaining to his Commander-in-Chief that the soldiers refuse to fight unless their leaders show theyï¿½re also willing to give up something. Hence, Agamemnon suggests the only obvious solution: sacrifice his own daughter to show his commitment to the greater good.
What ensues is a beautifully crafted blend of 21st century frenzy, both in dance and music, that conceptualize a brilliant three-dimensional stage experience. The collaboration between director Tina Landau and Mee is seamless, and breathtaking.
Kate Mulgrew is majestic as the ferocious Clytemnestra. Tom Nelis portrays Agamemnon with all his complexities, and Iphigenia is simultaneously ingï¿½nue and Joan of Arc, played by lovely Louisa Krause. The chaos that erupts, as Agamemnon predicted it would, is chilling and prescient.
As participants in our own societal woes, we must continue to support such theatrical endeavors to remind us, as does Euripides (who wrote the original), that we must strive to make the world better. Theater doesnï¿½t get any better than this.
What the press had to say.....
ï¿½Its variety of references and acting styles donï¿½t just portray the bland shallowness of contemporary culture so much as reflect it"
New York Times
"Signature has two more Mee plays this season. Let's just hope they carry more substance and less wind."
New York Daily News
"This vaude-ville-style approach to the Greek classics ultimately feels more reductive than revelatory."
New York Post
"A bold reinvention of a classic, "Iphigenia 2.0" inaugurates Signature's three-play, all-Mee season. From the looks of this show, subscribers are in for a thoughtful time of it."
"The performances are as urgent, as dangerous and as contradictory as their material. A devastating start to a major season by a playwright we need to know."
"The cast and crew of "Iphigenia 2.0" find themselves facing a quandary not unlike that of Euripides' marooned and war-hungry soldiers. Awaiting the overarching force that might propel them toward resolution, they languish, brimming with terrible energy in search of a worthy outlet."
New York Sun
"Should you be interested in exploring New York theater's rock bottom, its absolute zero, then catch Charles Mee's 'Iphigenia 2.0,' staged by Mee's favorite accomplice, Tina Landau."
"The play has been directed by Landau with a fierceness that makes every one of its 85 minutes count. It makes for exemplary theater."
"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. "