Charles Mee’s plays are like literary Frankensteins. He rips apart ancient Greek tragedies, stitches in snippets from blogs, the evening news and Kelly Clarkson songs, then jolts them with his own prose until they’re ready to stagger, or rather dance, on Off Broadway stages. Mr. Mee’s recent concoction, Iphigenia 2.0, a Greek tragicomedy about a king who sacrifices his daughter before the Trojan War, will be the first of three of his works to come alive (!) at the Signature Theatre Company later this summer.
The Signature, an Off Broadway theater specializing in plays from one writer per season, will charge just $20 per ticket. After years of being snubbed by Broadway with wallet-clearing ticket prices (truly, two $100 theater tickets means $1 pizza dinners during the rest of the week for most twentysomething, paycheck-to-paycheck city dwellers), younger audiences can enjoy cheap, quality theater and avoid the grass stains from lounging at Shakespeare in the Park.
“People in American theater sit around saying, ‘Oh, it’s so terrible, the theater, it’s not really a popular art form anymore,’” Mr. Mee mocked while sipping peach tea in the garden behind his Cobble Hill apartment. “But guess what? If you would just charge movie prices, people would show up!”
Mr. Mee, 68, has a John Kerry–like long face, with striking ice-blue eyes and a tuft of salt-and-pepper hair (mostly salty). He is grandfatherly and kind, drinks a lot of French tea and is heartbroken that his 18-year-old daughter Alice is graduating from St. Ann’s and moving across the country to attend dance school in California.
His avant-garde plays have been staged at Lincoln Center (Belle Epoque in 2005), the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (Big Love in 2001), Steppenwolf (The Berlin Circle in 1998) and little stages and workshops around the country.
Iphigenia 2.0 is the first part of a tetralogy of his “Imperial Dreams” plays, Mr. Mee explained. He already wrote the three others, about the end and the middle of the Trojan War (Part II: Trojan Women 2.0; Part III: Agamemnon 2.0; and Part IV: Orestes 2.0). This newest is based on Euripides’ 410 B.C. play, Iphigenia at Aulis. King Agamemnon stands at the brink of war, with the mighty Achaean fleet set to sail to Troy and retrieve Helen. But he must appease the goddess Artemis, who will give him strong winds to carry his massive ships across the Greek oceans only if he sacrifices his 16-year-old virgin daughter, Iphigenia.
He said he couldn’t write Iphigenia 2.0 until his other daughter, 22-year-old Sarah, went to Brown. “I have all these daughters, so I couldn’t bring myself to write it. So finally, when my daughter went away to college and I knew she was O.K., I could face it. It’s a story of a father who murders his daughter, I couldn’t do that. I just couldn’t do it.”
Mr. Mee set the play in modern-day America, complete with Sex and the City–like bridesmaids, Keith Richards references, girl chatter about trips to the spa, soldiers demanding Jolly Ranchers and “a blowup doll.”
In an opening line for Agamemnon, Mr. Mee wrote: “We see from the histories of empires that 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.” The Iraq War is the low fog that creeps among Mr. Mee’s writing, which is interspersed with passages from British military historian Richard Holmes, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (an expert on the psychology of killing) and other military men.
“I do a piece and, as they say, appropriate chunks of stuff from the world. I can’t change it, I can’t feed it through my psyche and make it come out the way I want it to come out. I have to take it as it is and then make that work in the construct of the whole,” he said.
Mr. Mee clearly doesn’t believe in intellectual property. All 34 of his plays are posted on his Web site. “None of the classical Greek plays were original: they were all based on earlier plays or poems or myths,” Mr. Mee wrote in an introduction to the site. “Sometimes playwrights steal stories and conversations and dreams and intimate revelations from their friends and lovers and call this original.
“And sometimes some of us write about our own innermost lives, believing that, then, we have written something truly original and unique. But, of course, the culture writes us first, and then we write our stories.”