BOTTOM LINE: A wonderful (and short!) adaptation of an ancient Greek play that is smart, funny, and sometimes even beautiful.
In my experience, when a play is "postmodern" or "meta," it comes off as little more than an excuse for the artists to flaunt their intellect and show off their knowledge about a certain subject. I call it "look how smart we are" theatre, and I generally find it obnoxious. Archness is favored over real emotion, and the focus is on the playwright's ego, at the expense of the audience's enjoyment. But even though Rescue Me has that dreaded "postmodern" in the subtitle, playwright Michi Barall wisely avoids the traps that come with this kind of theatre. What is more, she has written a play that is alternatively funny, thoughtful, beautiful, and even (gasp!) educational.
Rescue Me is an adaptation of Euripides's Iphigenia in Tauris, but with (post)modern dialogue. Iphigenia has escaped being sacrificed by her father Agamemnon to the gods (a story told in the more famous play Iphigenia at Aulis). Iphigenia is hiding out in Tauris, where she is the priestess for the temple of Artemis, and thus must perform the occasional human sacrifice. Her brother Orestes arrives at Tauris planning to rescue the statue of Artemis and bring it back to Greece, so he can stop the Furies from haunting him for killing his mother, Clytemnestra. Orestes, who thinks his older sister is dead, killed his mother because she killed his father Agamemnon, and Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon because he killed Ipigenia. Even though he didn't. If it sounds confusing, it isn't. Barall weaves in the pertinent information so the audience is never lost, yet Rescue Me also never feels like a lesson in Greek mythology (like some adaptations). While Barall never panders to her audience, she also doesn't weigh the play down with lots of useless filler.
Rescue Me is narrated - sort of - by Artemis, here played by David Greenspan, costumed simply in a black suit and white shirt. Yes, he's playing a goddess, yet with no wig nor make-up. It is a simple and brilliant choice, and Greenspan is consistently hilarious as he shifts between telling the audience about the play and watching telenovelas. Jennifer Ikeda plays Iphigenia (often shortened to the suggestive nickname "Iph"), and is a strong center to the piece, deftly balancing her frustration with her life and her resignation to it.
There are lots of other fun elements, from King Thoas (Leon Ingulsrud) breaking into "Don't Be Cruel" to the herdsman (Paco Tolson) and his lamb puppet, to the sudden break, in which the audience gets snacks and a chance to ask questions. This last element is the "educational" bit: pre-written questions are handed out (like, "Did they really practice human sacrifice?") and the audience is told to ask them. An expert is brought up to provide answers. It could be cheesy, but the questions are interesting. They help comment on the play in a way that would not have worked had it been integrated into the action. My one critique is the two towers of TV screens framing the stage; while they give the piece a "multimedia" feel, I don't think they are necessary, and sometimes distract more than they add.
But this is a dance-theatre piece, and that may have been my favorite part. Choreographer-dancer Julian Barnett's work is strong, surprising, and hauntingly beautiful. In one scene, Orestes (played by Barnett) must say goodbye to his friend Pylades; Pylades is returning to Greece with a message, while Orestes is staying to be sacrificed by Iphigenia (they haven't yet recognized each other). In this dance, a strong farewell handshake becomes a scene of fight practice, and then perhaps a loving embrace. Barnett's work is moving, modern, and erotic; most important, it both helps develop character and supplies this piece with real emotion, something all too often absent in a lot of hipstery, postmoderny theatre.
I loved Rescue Me- it is witty but not pretentious, funny but not silly, and moving but not saccharine. Director Arcenas keeps the pace up, somehow even when the action stops to hand out snacks. (Warning - the theatre is warm, so be prepared.) Iphigenia in Tauris is less popular than some other plays by Euripides (the "Q & A" explains why). But I'd be hard-pressed to think of a more entertaining adaptation of an ancient Greek play.
(Rescue Me: A Postmodern Classic with Snacks plays at the Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster Street, through April 18th, 2010. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30pm, Saturday at 2:30pm and 7:30pm, and Sunday at 2:30pm. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by calling (212) 352-3101 or on the Ma-Yi Theatre Company's website: www.ma-yitheatre.org.)