To say that Kate Mulgrew is "in a good place" right now would be an understatement. Given that she's starring in Iphigenia 2.0, Chuck Mee's free-wheeling modern take on Euripides, at the Signature Theatre, you might even call it a tragic understatement.
"Going to the theatre right now is going on wings," effuses Mulgrew, who's playing the role of the scheming queen Clytemnestra. "I don't remember the last time I felt this way in a company. It transcends anything you've ever heard."
The reason, she says, is that director Tina Landau, may be "one of the geniuses of our time." Using a theatrical technique she developed with Anne Bogart called Viewpoints, Landau creates "an entirely new spatial relationship with the other characters," Mulgrew says. "It's a deeply collaborative process where you never feel the hierarchical distinctions between director, star, the other actors. She's led us all to this creative body of water; we drink there, we refresh ourselves there, we're rejuvenated there."
Still, Mulgew admits that when first led to this creative water, she was reluctant to drink. A veteran stage and screen actress best known to the TV viewing public as Capt. Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, and to theatregoers as Kate Hepburn in Tea at Five and, most recently, the title character in Charles Busch's Off-Broadway hit Our Leading Lady, Mulgrew took the role on short notice after Victoria Clark (The Light in the Piazza) bowed out due to scheduling issues. And there she was on the second day of rehearsal, being asked by director Landau to work in a whole new way.
"I thought, 'Oh boy. She wants me to jump around, close my eyes and mime stuff. I'm too old for this.' But when I got home I looked in the mirror and said, 'Shame on you. This is the beginning of the end of your being an artist if you don't know how to embrace new things.' "
Mulgrew says she's glad she got over herself, because the result for her was a kind of return to innocence.
"What Tina did, almost magically, certainly mysteriously, was to take us all back into the supreme love of process, which is what the theatre is all about--and which I had forgotten. I certainly tasted it with Lynne Meadow [on Our Leading Lady]; she's a wonderful director. But this particular process took years off of the weight of my feeling about the theatre. I just dropped all the baggage."
Paradoxically, this openness and collegiality has allowed Mulgrew and the company to delve that much more deeply into the play's harshest elements: war, betrayal, murder, incest. As Mulgrew concedes, while the working relationships among the cast may be blissful, "What we're doing is in large part agonizing, because the Greeks didn't fool around. They weren't interested in anything mediocre. They were interested in reflecting the great triumphs and tragedies of our time. This is a play about the growth and shattering of ideas, and how they have changed not one whit since Euripides wrote it."
A depressing thought, isn't it?
"Well, it's a wonderful thought, too, because it brings us all together," says Mulgrew. "But it also shows us what we still need to change."
Indeed, says Mulgrew, Mee and Landau's modern-dress conception makes the parallels between Euripides' time and our own all the more apparent.
"I'm playing Clytemnestra as if she's a queen now, today," Mulgrew avers. "This is timely. This is what's going on now. Decisions of Greek size are being made now, and must be made. And it's this kind of time that created the Greek theatre, and that the great Greek tragedians were dealing with."
Mulgrew hasn't done the Greeks before, largely due to her "not inconsiderable trepidation" about approaching them. "You need size to do them," she continues, referring of course not to physical breadth or even theatrical presence but something more fundamental. She illustrated by example: "George Bush has authority; he has no size. Cheney has size, but he also has ego. Now, a queen can have ego, but her grief transcends that, and that's what gives her size."
You'd think that a woman who played the first female Star Trek captain and assayed the likes of Kate Hepburn onstage would feel sufficiently authoritative to tackle the scale of the Greek roles. But the scale of the Greek roles isn't just about throwing weight around; it's about real tragic feeling.
"These are difficult emotions to tap, and you can't fake them," Mulgrew says. "They have to come from some knowledge of the blows life can give you when you're not expecting them."
Some of the emotions churned up by the story of Iphigenia involve thorny relationships between parents and children: The title character is a princess her father plans to sacrifice as part of a war strategy. The playwright, Chuck Mee, who previously adapted various of the Oresteia plays, has said that he only felt comfortable facing the themes of the Iphigenia story after his young daughters were safely raised and off to college.
Mulgrew has a similar feeling.
"My last one just graduated from college," she says of her youngest daughter. "There's sadness in that, and there's great joy. They're up and out--and how did that happen?"
An empty nest does have its advantages, though.
"Now I can do what I love, what I've loved since I was 12 years old: to act on the stage. And to do it in the city of my soul."