nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 23, 2007
I've just started reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, which looks at its subject from the point of view of the common folk who make up the vast majority of a nation, rather than the elite who are in charge. I don't know if my subconscious mind was still absorbing the message of Charles L. Mee's Iphigenia 2.0 when I pulled this off the Borders bookstore shelf. But it makes for an apt pairing with Mee's play, which is spectacularly pertinent and powerful and demands to be seen by anyone who cares about the theatre or the health of the world.
Here's the link: whereas just about every other production or adaptation of a classic Greek tragedy that I've ever seen retains the original's focus on the hero or heroine at the center of its larger-than-life events, Mee's play inverts the order. The protagonist of Iphigenia 2.0 is the chorus—the "little people" whose lives are constantly being impacted by the decisions and actions of their leaders: you and me, in other words. And their/our tragedy is inertia.
Iphigenia 2.0 re-tells the familiar story from the legend of the House of Atreus. Agamemnon is a powerful king who has decided to invade a foreign country because his sister-in-law has been kidnapped/lured into living there: her husband and "the people" want her brought back. But as Agamemnon prepares to sail off to this war, he finds he must first make a sacrifice. (Mee's brilliant translation of the ancient idea embodied here, that the gods demand the sacrifice in order to provide winds for the warships' sails, is the stunning, modern notion that the soldiers won't fight unless their general proves he's willing to take on the same degree of loss that he's asking them to bear.)
The sacrifice is to be the murder of Agamemnon's oldest child, Iphigenia. He lures her, and her mother Clytemnestra, with the pretense of a marriage to the strongest and bravest and most glamorous of his soldiers, Achilles. It is not long before the women understand the truth of the situation, however.
Though the traditional ending of the play is retained—i.e., the promise of a horrific cycle of revenge and retribution—the real themes of this piece have to do with deceit and dormancy. Especially the latter: three separate constituencies—a group of soldiers in Agamemnon's army; a pair of Iphigenia's handmaidens; and a lone old man, the fruits of whose unending labors are continually disrupted and destroyed by the others—consistently fail to intercede in the horrific events unfolding before them, despite their clear understanding of the reasons why they should. The young men and women in particular are shown to be distracted by the trivial concerns of pop culture. When a response to the events wrought by the leaders is unavoidable, it seems to come in the form of destructive release rather than constructive action.
I love that Mee doesn't push the connections between the characters in this story and any specific contemporary Americans. But with his collaborators, notably director Tina Landau, he makes sure that we understand that the world he's showing us on stage is the one we currently live in. The imagery—words, music, and movement—is stark and potent, and we can hope that perhaps this piece will be a wake-up call for all who see it. It led me, somehow or other, to Zinn.
The cast is exemplary, especially Kate Mulgrew, who is extraordinarily commanding as Clytemnestra; Tom Nelis, who is shockingly life-sized (as opposed to larger-than-life) as Agamemnon; and Seth Numrich, hapless but ultimately impotent as Achilles. J.D. Goldblatt, Will Fowler, Jimonn Cole, and Jesse Hooker (as the four soldiers) and Emily Kinney and Chasten Harmon (as the bridesmaids) do memorable work as well, as does Angelo Niakas as the never idle, utterly taken-for-granted "Greek Man." He starts the evening by painting a wall, one that will get destroyed before the play is over. I thought about how he'll have to paint the thing over again tomorrow (and tomorrow, and tomorrow): the only genuinely brave act in a play littered with characters we've been taught to call heroes.