Double Your Pleasure: Theater Review, Iphigenia 2.0 (Part I)

Here’s what Counter Critic thought…

It’s hard to say exactly what Signature Theater’s production of Charles Mee’s Iphigenia 2.0 is trying to say. In one sense, it attempts, more than most contemporary theater, to address our country’s current pre-occupation with the war in Iraq. At the same time, however, it seems to warn of a kind of mortal inevitability of civilization. Under the direction of Tina Landau, these aims waver in and out as much as the quilted text sources shift gears, all to produce a piece of theater that shoots for avant-garde, but retains all the trappings of a good old Classical tragedy.

FROM AGAMEMNON’s opening monologue, played by an unconvincing Tom Nelis (it was difficult to find anything sincerly giving about his performance), we get the doomsday message, as he proclaims, “I see that there are acts that will set an empire on a course that will one day bring it to an end.” Already the suggestion of empire, if it is to mean anything other than Agamemnon’s historically suspect empire, is a cliche liberal analysis of America’s global/political status. By definition, the United States is not an empire, although there are traits of imperialism in our foreign policies, so to make this kind of equivocation is blatantly falacious. The King of Mycenae goes on to say, “Because, we see from the histories of empires none will last forever and all are brought down finally not by others but by themselves, from the actions that they take that they believe are right or good or necessary at the time to do.” True dat. And while the message is certainly a good one for American’s to hear–that was, afterall, the premise the Bush administration used to curry the American public into the war–the message is undermined by the literal translation we are supposed to make between ancient Greece and the modern world, that is, we are to take it as metaphor. One by one, soldiers enter wearing contemporary occupation gear [1], as the troubled king, who has made a deal with these men to sacrifice his daughter, the blithely titular Iphigenia, as a token of his commitment to the oncoming war and a sign that he is willing to make his own sacrifices (how ancient of a conceit is this, anyway, that the soldiers can ask this kind of concession from their commander in chief–people often use this argument when taking the B A to task for what is perceived an unwarranted war that is risking the lives of soldiers while keeping the directors of the war comfy-cozy in their houses). By the time all the soldiers have occupied the stage, the body metaphor–for the body politic–is in full swing in Agamemnon’s rant, that an “empire” will seek to be immune to perceived threats, even insults.

From this point on, the play bounces around from style to style, from point to point. We are to care about the narrative, then we are not to. I guess when it’s convenient for the director, you know, when she runs out of funky ideas like the soldier underwear dance, which is, at its best, a tacky exploitation of the actors, not the dangerous subversive imagery of American soldiers it is meant to be. (There is also a soldier underwear dance in the dismally lame affair that is Across the Universe.)

And I found the treatment of the soldiers, throughout the play, to be quite exploitive. Certainly there is some better way to comment on what soldiers mean to our culture, especially for the part they play as objects of pathos. In this piece, they are not this at all. They are–first of all–all men, who seem to derrive their characterizations from sci-fi cinema, rather than from real people who happen to have chosen the military as a course of seeing out life. They are presented as the cliched dichotymy of heterosexually repressed/crazed and violent. I don’t understand how any theater-maker, after Abu Grahib, can lay this kind of hideous behavior on the heads of men alone. We’ve seen that women in our military can treat people just as abhorrently, and can get off just the same on the sexual humiliation of others.

There are more cliches in this work. Clytemnestra, played here as a vixenous cougar by the commanding Kate Mulgrew, has a “Graduate” moment with Achiles, directed to put on his best “American Pie” emasculated nervousness. Then they pull the black-people-really-have-soul-when-they-sing” card, when one of the black troops (btw, two are black/other, two are white/…white) begins to intone a song that I can’t tell you what it was, the others–of course–join in because this stoic, plaintive voice that has endured centuries of unconsciounable abuse by white folk has moved them all to song.

But the biggest failure of this production, even aside these hideous reliances on well-worn theatrical tricks that as responsible adults we can no longer ethically put on stage, is that in the end, Iphigenia 2.0 tells us nothing new about war. It doesn’t seem to hit on any of the real concerns about the current Iraq occupation: lack of governmental transparency; the failure of the media to thoroughly challenge the case for war and their slimy compliance with any and all restrictions the federal government has put on the news media and taking up the banner for war as “embedded” reporters; a public that is already so undereducated (can’t find us/U.S. on the map) that it can barely be held accountable for confusing 9/11 and Iraq; our insatiable appetite for consumption regardless of the catastrophic consequences (natural and political) that reach far beyond American borders. Instead, it wraps everything up in some sort of end-of-days conjecture (as Sontag points out, a very modern fetish). Apparently this war is just one of the logical steps to anihilation that an “empire” such as ours needs to go through to reach its own climactic self-immolation. This play tries to glean artistic respect for dealing with the war. But a play about War–in general–isn’t necessarily a play about this war.

The highlight of the night, though, was Louisa Krause, whose rosy, OC-inspired Iphigenia is so on the money, and plays in great contrast to some of the less successful gravity of the show, that when her character–the quintessence of what American popular culture perceives the defense of whom this entire fucking war is for (pretty, rich daughters)–realizes that being sacrificed by her father in the cause of war will give her life meaning–in her own words, will make her “more than famous…immortal”–that catharsis couldn’t be more satisfying. As she goes off to daddy’s slaughterhouse, the other characters, presumably to express the literal senselessness of what is happening, embark on a nifty bachanal, replete with bizarre sexual activity, the breaking of dishes, dancing, wedding cake smearing.

When Agamemnon re-enters, holding a blodied Iphi in his arms, you can’t help but think how much more successful Mercedes Rhule’s dragging on of the bloody goat carcass sequence was in Edward Albee’s tragic love story, The Goat. Who cares, at this point, about Iphigenia? She received her transcendence, and now there’s a second generation play about her. And in the end, it has to be about her, because it certainly isn’t about the soldiers or the war in Iraq.

Now read what Sidekick had to say…

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3 Comments

  1. [1] The distance from which contemporary critics keep themselves from our present military activity in Iraq is telling in Eric Grode’s review in The Sun, referring to these costumes as “Desert Storm mufti.”

  2. […] Now read what Counter Critic had to say… […]

  3. […] death by Diana when Agamemnon had tried to kill his daughter to appease the gods (in most accounts (don’t make us bring up Chuck Mee), he does kill Iphigenie, and then that part of the House of Atreus story ends) and has lived in […]


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