Six years ago, the 9/11 attacks and subsequent horrors sent me looking for plays that were smart and lively and urgent enough to help make sense of a newly disorienting, anthraxed-up world. Week after week, neither revivals nor new plays sufficed. Then BAM put on Big Love, Charles Mee’s riff on Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women, about 50 wives who revolt against their 50 husbands. It had pop songs and a crazy mosh ballet and still posed hard questions about our responsibilities to one another: It made live theater feel live again. In fact, it’s not going too far to say it restored my wobbling faith in drama.
Still, when Signature Theatre announced that it would devote its 2007–08 season to three new works of Mee’s, I gulped. Since Big Love (no relation to the HBO series), he’s shown a maddening tendency to say the right things and write the wrong plays: giving rousing interviews in which he calls for a return to the theatrical energy of Shakespeare and the Greeks, then writing scripts so diffuse (a couple of standouts aside) you end up craving Arthur Miller. Fortunately, with Iphigenia 2.0, he starts the season as his old, vibrantly provocative self, our mash-up artist extraordinaire.
Somewhere near the heart of Mee’s collage method lies the paradox that theater is a very old art form that has to be made new every night. Here, he’s tried to bring Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis into the 21st century. First he ditches what no longer applies in our time, making Agamemnon’s need to sacrifice his daughter not the will of the gods, as in the original, but a demand of the troops he wants to lead to Troy. Then he starts embroidering.
His version begins when Agamemnon (an admirably anguished Tom Nelis), jacket off and tie undone, steps to the edge of the stage and says, “I see that there are acts that will set an empire on a course that will one day bring it to an end.” As he goes on musing about how great powers destroy themselves, you sense the audience getting rattled, tense: The Iraq debacle makes this hit too close to home. Mee spent twenty years as a historian before getting serious about writing plays, and at moments like this, it shows. A Greek king describing what might be the downfall of his way of life or our own renders uncomfortably exact the idea that history repeats itself—or, if you’re feeling dramatic, that history is just a couple of plays that leaders of empires continually, unwittingly revive.
Though Mee’s plays offer the illumination of a history lecture, they only rarely boast the concision. For better and worse, they’re more like transcripts of all the weird stuff that crossed your mind during class. So while you might be ready for the show’s chorus of soldiers in American fatigues to read blog entries from the front lines, or Menelaus (Rocco Sisto), who wears the uniform of a four-star general, to recount some gruesome acts of killing, Mee will still surprise you with George Washington’s rules of civility, “Mama Said Knock You Out,” and, when Agamemnon lures Iphigenia (Louisa Krause) to her demise by telling her she’s to be married, stories of bachelorette parties at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Some of this is silly, some feels too roundabout by half. (You can imagine Euripides arguing with Mee in some cosmic note session, the former wanting to plunge on toward the climax, the latter defending the free-associative route.) Though director Tina Landau empties a whole bag of tricks looking for ways to make excerpts from a corporate-leadership manual and other found texts stageworthy, and gets invaluable help from Kate Mulgrew, who’s memorably fierce as the couture-wearing Clytemnestra (particularly when she pulls a Mrs. Robinson on her daughter Iphigenia’s betrothed), the wandering focus still taxes your patience.
What gives Iphigenia 2.0 an emotional punch just the same is the way that, in this case, Mee’s noisy, frenetic collage actually does a pretty apt job of capturing our overexposed, ADHD-riddled society. The payoff isn’t mere anthropology. At the finale, you get a feel for Iphigenia’s nobility and the shadiness of the Greek cause, both of which Euripides intended. But Mee manages to provoke another, sharper reaction: a queasy distaste for the society that molded her—the sketchy values it fosters, the brittle opportunities it provides. That society, you feel by the end, can only be our own, circa right now. The brutal glimpses of American decadence really do turn a vital old play into a vital new play, one that Mee might yet subtitle Death in a Time of Bullshit.