Charles Mee, one of the village elders of the New York avant-garde scene, is being honored by the Signature Theatre Company with his own season, a richly deserved accolade. The 68-year-old innovator joins an elite group of major American artists—like Edward Albee, Adrienne Kennedy, John Guare and August Wilson—to be chosen by Signature.
The Wilson plays last season were of the highest order—the best thing Signature has ever done. Mr. Mee’s plays couldn’t be more different from Wilson’s searing narratives forged in the chains of black American history. Whereas Wilson mined his own history to create his epic dramas, you might say that Mr. Mee mines anything—and anyone—in order to create his own brand of theatrical dreamscape, collage and “appropriation.” The art of appropriation is just a fancy expression for stealing.
Mr. Mee steals in the manner of the found objects and collages of two of his influences, surrealist Max Ernst and Robert Rauschenberg. A Mee play might be inspired by Shakespeare (who famously “borrowed” his own plots), or Greek tragedy (which did the same thing). During the freewheeling writing, however, Mr. Mee raids various sources for dialogue—chat rooms, military manuals, his own dreams, The Jerry Springer Show, vaudeville routines, intellectuals like Roland Barthes, The National Enquirer, Vogue, Soap Opera Digest. As he puts it, he “speaks through the culture.”
The nice, unusual thing about Charles Mee is that he likes it if anyone rips off his plays in return. Fair’s fair. His Web site invites us to pillage and adapt any of his plays for production (and, phenomenally, over 100,000 copies of his plays are downloaded each year and produced round the world).
EURIPIDES’ IPHIGENIA AT AULIS IS THE source of Mr. Mee’s opening play at Signature, Iphigenia 2.0. He’s done one brilliant thing with it, and, I very much regret to say, many disappointing things.
Remaking the Euripides as both family tragedy and passionate protest against the moral bankruptcy of the Iraq war, he’s created the play in his trademark fashion—verbatim dialogue of U.S. soldiers taken off the Web, various tabloid references, quotes from real brides recycled for the wedding of Iphigenia and Achilles and so on. Agamemnon’s soldiers are costumed in U.S. Army gear; Iphigenia and her bridesmaids appear to be L.A. ditzes unconcerned about “this stupid war” and preoccupied by a bachelorette party at The Beverly Hills Hotel.
The outcome isn’t a contemporary Euripidean tragedy of political life—it’s Paris Hilton at Aulis.
And yet, Mr. Mee reveals his radical originality in the opening moments by changing the murderous basis of the Euripides tragedy. Instead of the gods ordering Agamemnon to sacrifice his own daughter, Mr. Mee has the army do it. It’s a startling change promising an evening of real consequence. The conscience-stricken father of Iphigenia—gray and brooding as a beleaguered politician—is blackmailed by his own army:
“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./ This should be the requirement placed on any leader/ who would engage in any enterprise/ that puts at risk the lives of others.”
If he wants the war, he must prove his commitment by sacrificing his own daughter.
If only Mr. Mee had developed his chilling new idea instead of trivializing it. The soldiers’ lives depicted here are a cliché down to the familiar, sweet memories of home. (“I spent some time with my wife at Wilmington Beach before shipping out. She put me to work, made me draw a heart in the sand with our names in it.”) But who cares a jot about a Paris Hilton version of Iphigenia? No disrespect: Kill her! And get on with the war, Agamemnon, if you must.