Louisa Krause and Tom Nelis
in Iphigenia 2.0
(© Carol Rosegg)
Louisa Krause and Tom Nelis
in Iphigenia 2.0
(© Carol Rosegg)
Charles Mee's Iphigenia 2.0 manages a very tricky feat: to completely update and reinvent Euripides' Iphighenia in Aulis while staying surprisingly true to its basic structure. This compelling work, directed by Tina Landau and featuring a terrific ensemble cast, gets the Signature Theatre Company's season off to a great start.

As in the original Greek tragedy, Iphigenia 2.0 opens with Agamemnon (Tom Nelis) lamenting his decision to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia (Louisa Krause) so that his army can set sail for Troy. He is berated for his weakness by his brother Menelaus (Rocco Sisto), and after his wife Clytemnestra (Kate Mulgrew) uncovers the plot, she woos the soldier Achilles (Seth Numrich) to her side. Once Iphigenia learns the truth, however, she takes her destiny into her own hands.

The first of many significant departures in Mee's version of the story is that Iphigenia is not to be slain for a favorable wind, but rather to appease Agamemnon's army. They will not follow him unless he sacrifices one of his own children to show that he is willing to risk as much as his soldiers. As one of them states, "The prospect of death in war is certain for some, and so they ask for you to be the first to accept this certainty."

Nelis plays the conflicted Agamemnon with compassion, while Sisto's Menelaus is hard-edged and uncompromising. Mulgrew approaches a melodramatic fever pitch as Clytemnestra, yet knows when to pull back and underplay her lines, as well. One of the funniest scenes is a dance she performs with Numrich's adorably awkward Achilles. Krause captures the youthful exuberance of a bride-to-be, while also hitting all the right notes in Iphigenia's climactic speech towards the end of the play.

A hard-working chorus of four soldiers (J. D. Goldblatt, Will Fowler, Jimonn Cole, and Jesse Hooker) handles the light, comic moments just as easily as they do the darker material within the play. Emily Kinney and Chasten Harmon are also wonderful as Iphigenia's two bridesmaids. Rounding out the cast is Angelo Niakas as a Greek man who hovers in the background, and seems to be some sort of servant.

The modern-dress production includes references to present-day terrorism, while the text's discussion of empires and leadership can also be read as a political critique of current U.S. foreign policy. Mee's language ranges from contemporary slang to elevated poeticism, incorporating excerpts from works by people such as military historian Richard Holmes, leadership guru Richard Heckler, and Dave Grossman, a specialist in the psychology of killing.

Reusing the words of others is a frequent playwriting strategy employed by Mee, whose works have a collage-like feel. There's a great deal of skill involved in such a technique; it's the literary equivalent of a Robert Rauschenberg "combine," and it's no accident that one of Mee's signature pieces is entitled Bobrauschenbergamerica.

Blythe R. D. Quinlan's set design for Iphigenia 2.0 is similarly reminiscent of a Rauschenberg artwork, mixing media for a striking cumulative effect. Scott Zielinski's atmospheric lighting, Jill BC DuBoff's terrific sound design, and Anita Yavich's costumes also make significant contributions to the overall aesthetic.

While the show is not a musical, characters often break into bizarre song and dance routines. It's a quirky stylistic device that's often overused by avant-garde theater artists, but which feels fresh here. Landau's staging has a carnivalesque atmosphere that is unpredictable yet wildly theatrical, culminating in an orgiastic conclusion that is utterly breathtaking.