There is an artistic imperative and an academic conceit that drives Charles Mee’s stunning “Iphigenia 2.0,” which kicks off with a vengeance a season at the Signature Theater that will be primarily devoted to his latest work. Boldly and baldly agitprop in its motivation and bitterly satirical in its mechanics, Iphigenia 2.0 is Mee’s reconsideration of Euripides’ classic tragedy, “Iphigenia at Aulis.” It is the first part of a tetralogy that includes “The Trojan Women 2.0,” “Agamemmnon 2.0,” and “Orestes 2.0” (none of which, however, are to be part of the season) in which he uses the fall of the House of Atreus as a springboard to articulate succinctly but generously with idiosyncratic flourishes his outrage at our own country’s imperial designs.
Notwithstanding Mee’s contention that we are proceeding on a path that has historically led to the devastation and implosion of empires, this audaciously conceived play is a superior politicized work. Its polemical contentions are weighted by a dazzling, occasionally humorous text and outstanding performances by a cast of 12. The play has been set in motion by Tina Landau, a director who has had several collaborations with Mee. Area theatergoes may remember her staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at McCarter last season.
To address Mee’s wildly free-wheeling mosaic of lyrical prose and even loony pretensions, Landau deploys a vast network of virulent, sensual, choreographic, and contextual elements — all of which become interactive and interdependent components. Greek songs and traditional dances, musical comedy embellishments, postured speechifying and charmingly contemporary teenage girl-speak, sex, and imaginative costuming (the work of Anita Yavich), become part of a unified drama that unfolds with harrowing and horrifying efficacy.
The setting by Blythe R.D. Quinlan has the appearance of what might possibly be an old storehouse used for basic training. Ladders, poles, ropes, and piles of sandbags and stones hug the walls as do vintage pinup pictures. Above a landing that evidently leads to unseen rooms is a lit chandelier, its presence an anachronism. Soldiers in combat fatigues go through basic calisthenics, which are addressed with an exciting flair that combines hip body language with aerobic disciplines.
The four buff, nameless soldiers — Will Fowler, Jimonn Cole, Jesse Hooker, and J.D. Goldblatt (who also serves as dance captain) — have significant roles in the drama. We watch them confront and cope with their anxiety, fear, and finally their desperate need for validation. (“The soldiers have already said they will not sail to Troy, they will not put their lives at risk unless you (Agamemmnon) make a sacrifice that means as much to you as their lives mean to them.”)
The story — in which Agamemmnon (Tom Nelis), the commander in chief of the Greek Army, convinces his troops that the senseless and unnecessary war they are embarking on is worth the sacrifice of many lives — is given psychological complexity when he hastily offers to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia (Louisa Krause), as proof of his integrity. The situation becomes frantic when Clytemnestra (Kate Mulgrew, who television audiences will know from her roles as Mary Ryan on “Ryan’s Hope” and Captain Kathryn Janeway on “Star Trek: Voyager”), Iphigenia’s mother, discovers to her horror that her daughter has not been summoned to Aulis to marry the nonplussed and vaguely amenable Achilles (Seth Numrich) but to be murdered.
Mee has a reputation for fusing the conventional and the unconventional, borrowing handily and openly from other writers and sources while creating a unique voice in dramatic literature. For the moment I am won over. Adventurously neoclassical in its style and yet thrillingly contemporary in its presentation, “Iphigenia 2.0” has been arrestingly directed by Landau to support Mee’s target message: a country that conducts unnecessary wars inevitably and eventually leads to its implosion.
Throughout the play an old Greek man (Angelo Niakas) sits on the sidelines whitewashing a wall. As Agamemmnon, Nelis poignantly conveys his increasing anguish and despair as he sets himself up to be a victim of his reckless decisions. (“…a nation must protect its borders and, in order to do that, must secure its periphery and so it will come to attend to conditions just beyond its outermost bounds and thus, by increments, its interest will grow until they will have been extended beyond an ability to defend them. They will have created new enemies along the way.”) He is destined to be murdered by Clytemnestra in another play.
Rocco Sisto, as Menelaus, complies unflinchingly with the stern and uncompromising dictates of his position as general of the troops. Seth Nurich certainly gives us a new slant on Achilles, here a naive and indecisive suitor, a young man whose manliness and bravery is undoubtedly confined solely to his heel. Kate Mulgrew’s deep, throaty voice enhances her terrific portrayal as the sensual Clytemnestra, whose scorn and hatred for Agamemmnon is made as clear as is her seductive nature, especially in the arms of the unwittingly compliant Achilles.
Krause, who made a fine impression last season in Neil LaBute’s “In a Dark Dark House,” has the difficult task of bringing Iphigenia from the poses of a giddy-with-life Malibu Beach babe to a state of virtual maturity and singleness of purpose. She does this effectively and poignantly, enabling us to feel the heartbreak and understand the sacrifice. Emily Kinney and Chasten Harmon are effervescent as Iphigenia’s close friends and bridesmaids. That is until the wedding preparations go to pot as does the morality of the soldiers in the light of the despicable if inevitable deed that has been ordained. With no apologies to Euripides, “Iphigenia 2.0” is a fine and fearsome play for our times and for our consideration.
“Iphigenia 2.0,” through Sunday, October 7, Signature Theater Company at the Peter Norton Space, 555 W. 42nd Street. $20. 212-244-PLAY.