Kate Mulgrew definitely is. When first her Clytemnestra appears, bedecked in fake tan, oversized sunglasses, and skin-hugging summerwear, the image is one of a tabloid-tempestuous trophy wife whose heart only beats as the front pages of the gossip rags turn. Every glance, whether to Agamemnon or out above the heads of the audience, is full of purposeless import, her every spoken word dancing with sing-song pep. She is anything and everything her husband and daughter, Iphigenia, need her to be, and as Mulgrew plays her, there’s nothing unnatural or untoward about it.
But reveal the wrong facet of the truth in front of her, and a demon emerges from her woman’s skin. Agamemnon has not summoned Clytemnestra and Iphigenia there to marry Iphigenia to Achilles, but rather to sacrifice her to the Gods so that his battle plans may proceed apace. Upon hearing this, Mulgrew keens and cries and silently screams, with such inward-directed brutality that you fear she might produce a blade and slit her wrists onstage. What follows is even more devastating: A guttural growl, a promise and threat all rolled into one.
“If you kill your daughter,” she rumbles,” “I will murder you. I will tear your hands from your arms and your arms from your shoulders. I will burn the flesh from your body, I will beat your bones to dust. What you have begun will not be finished until you are pounded back into dirt.” This, too, you believe, without question. The intensity is quiet nearly to the point of invisibility, but it’s enough to leave you shaking in your seat, especially if you know enough about Clytemnestra to realize how prophetic her statements are - and how completely Mulgrew has brought them to life.
Unfortunately, nothing else matches the lacerating power of Clytemnestra at her fieriest; the surrounding play and production, which has been exhaustively overdirected by Tina Landau, are as surface-scraping as the anguish of Mulgrew’s Clytemnestra is bottomless. Mee has excised most of the grander overtones from Euripides’s original play, Iphigenia at Aulis, to tell a too-familiar story about a misguided military leader and the price he’s willing to pay for success. Gone are the Gods, the glory, and the overarching gaze of Fate that give the original Greek tragedy its monumental heft.
The original has been thoroughly refashioned as an effectively American story, with most of the characters’ concerns appropriately (if often stereotypically) shortsighted. Playing out in the supply depot-turned-grand ballroom set of Blythe R.D. Quinlan, Agamemnon is a not-so-vaguely American and a somewhat-less-vaguely George W. Bush figure (the actor cast to play him, Tom Nelis, bears some resemblance to the current President), and his warships are stalled not because of divine intervention on the part of the goddess Artemis, but because the soldiers themselves refuse to fight if Agamemnon is not willing to make the same sacrifice he’s asking of them.
Yet the soldiers we eventually meet (J.D. Goldblatt, Will Fowler, Jimonn Cole, and Jesse Hooker) are not men of wisdom, but earthy, lusty types who come alive not in philosophical discussions about the nature of existence (in which they’d be underequipped in any event), but in the choreographic calisthenics that reduces their concerns to nothing more than their bodies. Iphigenia (Louisa Krause) is little better, a spoiled society blonde who’s so clueless to everything happening around her that it’s never clear why sacrificing her would be any great loss to anyone.
Mee’s reconception of the character doesn’t provide her many opportunities, but Krause brings such sandpapery vapidity to Iphigenia that it’s impossible to accept her role in the conflict’s eventual outcome as a conscious decision, let alone representative of any consciousness at all. If the play isn’t building to Iphigenia’s own personal declaration of independence, what’s the point?
That’s hard to tell. One suspects Landau and Mee intended to show how, in wartime, no one is innocent. But without deeper exploration of the impact of everyone’s choices, this moral does not reveal itself. There are a few tasty hints of collusion between Clytemnestra and Achilles (a charmingly gawky Seth Numrich), and the weight exerted on Agamemnon by General Menelaus (a firm-voiced and steady-mannered Rocco Sisto) promises more than is delivered.
Only Mulgrew taps into a range of experiences full enough to make Clytemnestra a real woman rather than just another victim. Gliding from outrage to myopic maternal meddling (in planning Iphigenia’s wedding-not-to-be) to inconsolable grief once the saga has played itself out, she is the very personification of both the estimable excesses of Greek tragedy and the intimate emotional immediacy of contemporary drama. Her performance spans the millennia with a bridge of searing truth that the rest of Iphigenia 2.0 aspires to, but never attains.