Tantalus Theatre Group
at the Syndicate
Lookingglass Theatre Company
at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts
When a respected historian takes up the mantle of playwright, one might expect linear structures, careful exposition, and an elegiacal solemnity. Not so with Charles L. Mee, who delights in what he terms “broken” plays (a simpler way of saying “postmodern”). Drawing on a variety of sources–mostly classical Greek drama but also contemporary interviews, essays, and pop music–Mee has created a body of work that looks at birth, death, and seemingly the only two inevitable occurrences in between: war and love.
Mee doesn’t just dismantle others’ work–he hopes the same will be done to his. With “The (Re) Making Project,” an Internet archive, he encourages people to alter his scripts for their own purposes free of charge. Glen Cullen, director of Tantalus Theatre Group’s inaugural production, has taken advantage of Mee’s offer with mixed results. The company’s Agamemnon 02 is based on Mee’s 1994 Agamemnon 2.0, itself based on Aeschylus’s account of the Trojan War and troubled home life of the titular Greek warrior. This might seem at least one cannibalization too many, but Cullen’s changes make sense in light of the war on terrorism and deepening Palestinian-Israeli conflicts. He also treats Mee’s text respectfully, cutting very little of it but interpolating depressingly suitable contemporary sound bites about the need to tear evil out at its roots no matter the cost.
Staged with the utmost simplicity and earnestness in the intimate surroundings of the Syndicate, Agamemnon 02 never quite finds the horror at the heart of this epic tale of rape, revenge, and desolation. The four young actors in Cullen’s ensemble are passionate but not technically proficient enough to move smoothly between their roles or to bring out the shadings in Mee’s language. Cullen doesn’t always find the play’s connective tissue, flattening the action’s arc just at the point it should be heightened. When Agamemnon returns to his wife, Clytemnestra, who’s bent on avenging his sacrificial murder of their daughter, the primal connections between domestic violence and the excesses of war should be obvious, but they remain somewhat muddy in this staging.
One of the liberties Cullen takes does pay off, though. Instead of identifying the choral characters as ancient historians and poets the way Mee does, he draws on the ensemble’s youth and energy to suggest that the young must address these atrocities. And it’s chilling to realize how much of Mee’s original script is applicable to the current world situation. When one of the returning Greek warriors talks about the decimation of the Trojan menagerie, one thinks immediately of the much reported fate of the one-eyed lion in the Kabul zoo. When Cassandra recounts how Troy was “brought down with all their towering beauties, their massive walls,” she asks the Greeks, “Could this never happen to you?” And when Agamemnon (Isaiah Brooms) boasts that his army made Troy pay “a woman’s price” in the war, it evokes visions of burqa-clad women in a shelled-out landscape foraging for food. (But some of Mee’s more graphic descriptions of torturing women, particularly when Agamemnon talks about naked women forced to crawl on their hands and knees toward their death by decapitation, are just plain creepy, veering into atrocity as titillation.)
Cullen also beefs up the role of Cassandra, giving her many lines the chorus delivers in Mee’s script and thus subtly suggesting that the voices of women might be necessary to any dialogue about lasting peace. Unfortunately, Mary Trotter’s readings of these lines become shrill from time to time, but Felicity Hesed’s calculating, smoldering Clytemnestra provides balance: her carefully modulated voice and deliberate movements form a dramatic counterpoint to the character’s rage at her husband’s betrayal.
What Cullen and his company do best is strip the play to its essentials, using minimal props and costumes. The audience sits on plank benches on all sides of the playing area, delineated by a ring of small white votive candles that are lit at the play’s beginning and snuffed by the end. This is theater as prayer for peace, as ritual, as remembrance. Though it tells us little we don’t already know (war is hell), it does so with an affecting if somewhat clunky sense of urgency.
Urgency is what’s missing from Lookingglass Theatre’s staging of Mee’s Summertime. Originally developed by San Francisco’s Fifth Floor Productions and presented at the Magic Theatre in 2000, the show is an interesting choice for Lookingglass if only because the company usually develops its own scripts, often adapting nontheatrical material for the stage. And frankly I think these artists could have come up with a more intriguing and touching look at the vagaries of the human heart than Mee has: his tendency to downplay psychology has negative consequences here.
Several couples, both gay and straight and of various ages, gather on a languid summer day on Martha’s Vineyard and proceed to fall in and out of love, recounting old passions and pains, creating new ones, and trading soliloquies about gender differences, whether or not there’s only one great love in each life, whether our families predestine our failure or success in romance, etc. There are lots of delightful moments and amusing stage pictures under Joy Gregory’s assured direction, and Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set and lighting design offer pure eye candy in saltwater taffy hues.
But this show has the opposite problem of the Tantalus production. Here a hugely talented ensemble attempts to breathe life into a negligible, rather precious script. We don’t care whether any of these characters ends up with anyone else since they exist mostly to mouth the author’s glib insights about love. Tellingly, the most crowd-pleasing moment comes from would-be Andy Warhol assassin Valerie Solanis, an excerpt from her “Scum Manifesto,” delivered with great brio by DuShon Monique Brown: “What do you call the useless piece of flesh at the end of a penis? A man.” Solanis’s diatribe may be problematic politically, but it’s infused with the humor and passion of someone writing what she believes. Mee’s script suggests that he finds love little more than an amusing warm-weather diversion for the leisure classes.
The reliable Laura T. Fisher excels as Maria, a matron unwilling to extinguish the passion of her old flame, Francois. And I must admit it’s refreshing to find a show that objectifies men more than women: Joe Dempsey’s angry striptease as Francois is a comic highlight. Philip R. Smith brings understated longing to straight-arrow James, smitten with Maria’s daughter Tessa (an appealing Anne Fogarty). Tessa’s anguish at her family’s strangeness recalls You Can’t Take It With You. But since Mee’s characters are little more than harmless, winsome mannequins and their interactions are as arid and blank as the white sand surrounding the playing area in Lookingglass’s production, we lose any sense of love’s roots in real life. Mee obviously delights in absurdism, but the darker strains of the style elude him.
A program note quotes Mee as saying that “the great hope for the theater is that it returns to the immense energies that were in Greek theater and Shakespeare, theater that includes not just text and interpersonal relationships but also spectacles, music, dance, physical performance, color, noise, fabulous events happening.” One gets the uneasy feeling that Mee is in effect clearing his throat and pointing to himself here. And it’s worth noting that the Greeks and Shakespeare have survived in part because their plays are filled with characters we care about.
It seems Mee wouldn’t be particularly bothered if, for example, Isabella married the creepy duke at the end of Measure for Measure. Hey, it’s just love, and it’s crazy, and who can explain it? Lookingglass does what it can to infuse this souffle with energy and verve. But perhaps part of the problem is that the world has changed since Summertime premiered. “You have to be so brave even to accept a dinner invitation,” Tessa exclaims at one point. But as Tantalus reminds us with Agamemnon 02, definitions of bravery are more complicated these days.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.