Theater Reviews

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Signature Theatre, New York
Through Sept. 30


In all likelihood, Jenna and Barbara Bush won't be attending any performance of "Iphigenia 2.0." But if by some chance they do, the president's daughters might be sorry.

The reason has nothing to do with the quality of Charles Mee's reimagining of the Euripides classic, "Iphigenia at Aulis." It has everything to do with the playwright practically dedicating his production to the concept of their being sent to Iraq.

Granted, the Bush name is never uttered. But it wouldn't take a Rhodes Scholar to draw the parallels as soldiers in "Iphigenia 2.0" refuse to go to war until their commander puts his own child's life on the line. Specifically, they want his daughter sacrificed before they will fight a battle in a foreign land, endanger innocent civilians and engage in prisoners' torture. If their fearless leader insists on keeping his distance, so will they.  

For anyone who hasn't connected all the dots, the play retains its predecessor's Trojan War setting and Greek protagonists -- father Agamemnon, wife Clytemnestra, daughter Iphigenia -- but dresses them in present-day suits and dresses and accessorizes them with cell phones and the like.

The problem, for audience members of any political persuasion, is that the device feels tired and obvious. When Agamemnon engages in a speech about empire building and ambition, it seems that Mee is simply shooting fish in a barrel. What's to be learned from rehashing again how history repeats itself, whether the goal is securing Iraq's oil or Helen of Troy?

And so it goes for the show's first 20 minutes. But from that point on, the plotting gets less predictable. Agamemnon has taken the soldiers' request to heart and lured Iphigenia to his lair with the promise of her marriage to hunky Achilles. She's quickly followed by the lovely Clytemnestra, who, as mother of the bride-to-be, has plenty to say.

With all the major characters now in place, one might think that Agamemnon's soul searching and Clytemnestra's dawning horror would be front and center. Not the case. Instead, Mee has the cast breaking into a traditional Greek dance worthy of Zorba one minute and then taking part in an impromptu football game. There also is a sequence of the four particularly athletic grunts engaging in a stage-shaking set of choreographed gymnastics. And that's not even mentioning when Iphigenia and her bridesmaids find themselves singing a tune that would work just as well for Sandy and her gal-pals in "Grease."

Director Tina Landau does her part for the unexpected by having no shortage of activity on what is initially a bare-bones set. So if Iphigenia and her mother are talking about wedding preparations at center stage, the soldiers are taking bona fide showers and then washing their dirt-encrusted fatigues on the stage's periphery.

The cast appears game for just about anything, whether climbing ropes, getting a face full of wedding cake or exposing more than a flash of skin. Heading the troupe is the ever-glamorous Kate Mulgrew, making her Clytemnestra into the most stylish but steely mom since Jackie O. She gets to show sex appeal to spare in a not-so-subtle seduction scene as well as feral ferocity when finally clued in to the goings-on.

Mulgrew's colleagues prove every bit her equal, with Tom Nelis' confused Agamemnon a standout. Also deserving of mention are the four nameless soldiers played by J.D. Goldblatt, Will Fowler, Jimonn Cole and Jesse Hooker. Each can sing, dance and gyrate while still exuding a palpable aura of menace.

Does it all add up? That's debatable. Some might find it simply ludicrous. Still, even detractors can't deny the show's level of imagination, or the actors' abilities, or the somewhat dated message's effect.

Unlike Euripides' work, "Iphigenia 2.0" isn't the stuff of classics. But it has some classic moments nonetheless.

IPHIGENIA 2.0
Signaturre Theatre Company
Credits:
Playwright: Charles Mee
Director: Tina Landau
Set designer: Blythe R.D. Quinlan
Lighting designer: Scott Zielinski
Costume designer: Anita Yavich
Sound designer: Jill BC DuBoff
Cast:
Agamemnon: Tom Nelis
Clytemnestra: Kate Mulgrew
Iphigenia: Louisa Krause
Achilles: Seth Numrich
Menelaus: Rocco Sisto
Greek Man: Angelo Niakas
Soldier 1: J.D. Goldblatt
Soldier 2: Will Fowler
Soldier 3: Jimonn Cole
Soldier 4: Jesse Hooker
Bridesmaid 1: Emily Kinney
Bridesmaid 2: Chasten Harmon
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