Charles Mee’s Euripides: Iphigenia as Beverly Hills Bride

I see what Mr. Mee is saying. (How could anyone miss it?) “Life” is like this. Shallow people party while

I see what Mr. Mee is saying. (How could anyone miss it?) “Life” is like this. Shallow people party while an insane war continues. “If you were an old man sitting at home by the fire/ you would tsk tsk the war” pronounces the furious general Menelaus after spewing out a list of war atrocities—his unapologetic reality of war. “Even as you went out to dinner and the theatre/ you might even be appalled by it/ but not for more than a moment or two.”

And here we all are at the theater, going tsk tsk. And there’s Charles Mee sitting quietly at the back of the auditorium, watching his own play. … There’s no authentic tragic dimension, or nobility, in his piece. “Is this how girls are, then, these days,” the indignant Clytemnestra complains amusingly. Iphigenia has decided to let Daddy kill her so that she can be more than famous—immortal! “What teen magazines have you been reading?” moans Mum. “What crap?”

Kate Mulgrew’s Clytemnestra is more like an over-the-top mad Medea (though at least Ms. Mulgrew is having some fun). When the director Tina Landau has an opportunity to create something erotic out of a seductive dance between Clytemnestra and Achilles, however, the result is a bad comedy turn between a heavy-breathing matron and a fumbling dope.

Mr. Mee has done work far superior to Iphigenia 2.0. (An early script directed by Martha Clarke produced the masterly Vienna: Lusthaus.) The outcome of his collaboration with Ms. Landau—who’s worked with him on several projects in the past—is unhappy.

The director’s avant-garde bag of tricks is by now very tired indeed, including the impressionistic mess of a set, designed by Blythe R.D. Quinlan, that’s intended to represent some kind of universal reality. (It’s a clichéd collage of little toy war planes on wires, found objects, a pile of ladders, a chandelier peeping from an inner room, various ropes, real rocks, a whitewashed wall, a beaten-up chair, etc.)

Ms. Landau’s random dance interludes create the jaw-dropping impression that she’d prefer to be directing a camp musical. The dances have been “developed” by the director “in collaboration” with her game cast. I’m sorry, they’re juvenile. One is the kind of amateurishly performed traditional Greek dance that you might insist doing drunk on ouzo on a Saturday night. Another is a chorus line of four soldiers who strip to their skivvies for no particular reason and perform a vigorous gym routine to rap.

We’re a long way from Euripides. (And we’re a long way from Mr. Mee’s intended tragedy about war and peace, politics and love.) The wayward production at least reveals the origin of Greek plate smashing: The play ends with a predictable bacchanalia during Iphigenia’s postponed wedding; the girls now strip, the soldiers look hot and deranged, plates are smashed and chaos ensues. Agamemnon then enters the action carrying the bloody body of Iphigenia in his arms, performing on cue a primal scream.

It quite reminds us of grieving Lear carrying in Cordelia, minus a gallon of stage blood. Or of Fiona Shaw’s Medea carrying in her poor, bloody boys during the final moment of Medea (2002). Mr. Mee wouldn’t have it any other way.

Charles Mee’s Euripides: Iphigenia as  Beverly Hills Bride