IT’S ALL GREEK TO MEE
Charles Mee’s plays are audacious, imaginative, weird, sometimes funny, and more often than not, powerful and thought provoking; they are not for all tastes, but audiences willing to sign on for one of Mee’s dramatic flights of fancy are guaranteed a wild ride that likely will make the viewer laugh, wince, and think. Consider Mee’s 2007 play Iphigenia 2.0, now receiving an extremely creditable production at the Next Theatre. Mee takes as his starting point the ancient Euripides’ Greek tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis, in which the Greek general Agamemnon decides to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to placate the gods in order to receive favorable winds so his fleet can sail to Troy to fetch the famous beauty Helen back her husband, the Greek king Menelaus.
“The soldiers have already said/
they will not sail to Troy/
they will not put their lives at risk/
unless you make a sacrifice that means as much to you as their lives mean to them.”
That’s a disturbing sentiment for military leaders and home front government officials and industrialists who send young men off to die in battle while they remain safely behind the lines pulling the strings of war.
The 80-minute play makes graphic statements along the “war is hell” line, describing the violence of conflict and the deaths of innocents. There is also much pontificating about heroism and patriotism and the necessity for national defense. The play cynically connects with U.S. involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and all the purple prose flung at American citizens to justify those military actions. But Iphigenia 2.0 isn’t a foreign policy debate, and it’s not a propaganda exercise for or against participation in distant wars. It’s a dazzling sequence of unexpected sights and sounds, a continuous stream of anachronisms, singing and dancing, and pop culture references (I doubt that Euripides mentioned Kristen Stewart in his tragedy).
The basic storyline and the names of the characters come from the Euripides original, but the soldiers are dressed in modern fatigues and the women are costumed in Marianna Czaszar’s modern dresses and gowns. Rick and Jackie Penrod’s setting is the interior of some kind of command post with television monitors mounted on the wall, carrying live pictures of the characters taken with a handheld TV camera (lighting designer Heather Gilbert and sound designer Rick Sims also buttress the crucial physical presentation of the show).
In one bit, four soldiers who perform as the Greek chorus recite George Washington’s instructions on proper etiquette when eating in public. Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, delivers a humorous litany of do’s and don’ts to Iphigenia’s ditzy bridesmaids about what to say at her daughter’s wedding to the Greek hero Achilles. In another scene, Iphigenia performs a saucy strip tease. The soldier chorus strips to its underwear. The music ricochets from Greek pop to rap to contemporary rock. The dancing stretches from disco to military drill team. Throughout the action, a bearded barefoot Greek man meanders around the stage. His only utterance is a passionate speech that may have some relevance to the narrative, but it’s spoken in Greek.
The separate scenes may make little sense as a coherent narrative, but cumulatively the play works, melding its serious statements with the exuberant “what will they do next” singing and dancing and off-the-cuff modern language. But all the shenanigans fall away at the end in a powerful finale that throws a bloody spotlight on the follies and misguided bravery of war.
Iphigenia obviously demands a staging that is inventive and visual without losing contact with Mee’s basic concerns about wars and who fights them and why and at what cost. Guest director David Kersnar does a superb job of balancing the play’s bizarre surface with Mee’s underlying political and social concerns. There is a surreal logic to Kersnar’s staging that saves the evening from descending into a kind of madcap vaudeville.
The large 12-member cast includes a number of young performers, which accounts for the artless nature of some of the acting. But everyone in the ensemble is well up to the very physical requirements of the show and their singing and dancing are rousing and often thematically illuminating: Laura T. Fisher is the most experienced performer in the ensemble and her well-rounded performance as Clytemnestra earns the top acting marks, but there is good work by Aaron Todd Douglas who plays the conflicted father/general Agamemnon; Rebecca Buller is a persuasive Iphigenia, who starts out as a valley girl and ends up a martyr to her sense of sacrifice; the four soldiers—Luce Metrius, Wesley Daniel, Erik Strebig, and Max Fabian–throw themselves into their roles with commendable intensity and discipline; Alexa Ray Meyers and Ariella Marchioni are fun as Iphigenia’s giggly bridesmaids; Ricardo Gutierrez plays Menelaus, a general who’s seen and participated in his share of wartime horrors; Anthony Kayer plays the elusive nameless Greek; and Nick Vidal rounds out the cast as Achilles.
There will doubtless be spectators who will dismiss Iphigenia 2.0 as full of sound and fury, signifying very little. I found the show continuously involving and entertaining in a production that adds a gold star to the Next’s noble record of bringing edgy and stimulating plays to Chicagoland audiences.
photos by Michael Brosilow
Next Theatre in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston
scheduled to end on October 14, 2012
for tickets, call 847 475 1875 or visit http://www.nexttheatre.org
for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com