5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Michi Barall


She could have called it Iph and When.

But instead, actress-turned-playwright Michi Barall took Iphigenia in Tauris by Euripedes, reset it in what appears to be a cross between contemporary times and a timeless universe, and retitled it Rescue Me.

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The play also bears a wonderfully playful subtitle: (A Post-Modern Classic with Snacks).

Directed by Loy Arcenas and choreographed by Julian Barnett, Rescue Me is currently in previews, courtesy of the Obie-winning Ma-Yi Theater Company, with the opening to come on March 30. The name of the central character — a not-so-iffy 34-year-old woman with the unlikely name Iph — is stuck in a dead-end job, per a description of the play, but really, that isn’t the very worst of it. Like Iphigenia (who, with her arresting brother Orestes, kicks the saga of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra into a new generation of tragic gyrations), Iph is haunted by the past and unable to take any solace in her present surroundings. Oh, and then there’s that little problem of a temperamental goddess and a barbarian king, ready to perpetuate the heady tradition of human sacrifice. So, you see, it truly isn’t a matter of Iph, but when.

Rescue Me stars the Obie-winning actor David Greenspan, and features Jennifer Ikeda, Julian Barnett, Leon Ingulsrud, Postell Pringle, Paco Tolson, Oni Monifa Renee Brown and Katherine Partington.

But it is Barall herself in this case who piqued our interest: She is primarily known as an actress, appearing in plays by surnames automatically familiar to theater folks: Guare, Rivera, Rudnick, Yew and the like. Barall is also married to a playwright: the renowned Charles L. Mee, who has spent great swaths of his career resurrecting dramaturgical pastiche from the palette of theater history.

So, why the Greeks? And why is Iph not so iffy? Is there a “but” to the journey of Iph?

Rescue Me runs through Apr. 18 at the Ohio Theatre (66 Wooster St.). For tickets, click here or call 212-352-3101.

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And now, 5 questions Michi Barall has never been asked — and a bonus question:

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1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
What is it about?

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
What is it about?

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
What is it about?

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4) In adapting Iphigenia in Tauris, what did you find most challenging about your source text? Did certain plot elements or themes cry out to be surmounted? Or did the entire play naturally and organically lend itself to your refashioning?
I stumbled on the original quite by accident and it struck me as so contemporary, so American, really, that I actually felt it lent itself very easily to the process of adaptation. I think of this play as a template for a lot of the escape-adventure movies we see today (a guy and a girl running from terrifying barbarians (or aliens) with a magical/totemic object — think Raiders of the Lost Ark…), so that the plot felt very familiar to me. I do think I’ve done some explaining — so that I’ve expanded aspects of the plot that would have been plain to a Greek audience, but may not read as easily today. I have also made interventions. But I think of them less as interventions than riffs on the many conversations this play has generated over 2,500 years.

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5) Why is Rescue Me subtitled (A Post-Modern Classic with Snacks)? Why do you think new plays are increasingly being subtitled? Is it a — lo, academia! — semiotic trend?
I think subtitles are really about marketing rather than a po-mo trend. They’re a little like subheads in newspaper or magazine articles. I think there’s a real need to communicate directly with prospective audiences and to deliver as much information as possible as quickly as possible. So you try to give them a little content, tone and subliminal messaging in the title. And if you can’t manage that in two words, you subtitle.

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Bonus Question:

6) You’re married to playwright Chuck Mee and you’ve appeared in many plays by other writers. What’s the importance of dramatic voice for you? How did you individualize and compartmentalize your own?
I’ve been lucky in that as an actor I’ve been able to work with amazing writers and in some cases I’ve been able to live through the much of the developmental process of a play. I think that somewhere, somehow, I’ve absorbed writing lessons, although I really don’t know how to talk about it. But perhaps what I’ve learned is that each subject, each play, each character has a distinct and individual quality. I don’t think that I have an individual voice, although I do have preoccupations. I tend not to know what these preoccupations are until I look back and see that I’ve been writing about something for the better part of, say, five years. My newer plays tend to be social dramas dealing with the cultural aspects of globalization. For the moment, I’m working on a piece about women in the global factory. But my hope is to return to writing pieces that are a little more like Rescue Me — interdisciplinary, fractured dance-dramas. I’ve really loved collaborating with Julian Barnett, a choreographer I basically stalked until he consented to work with me. He’s an amazing choreographic voice himself and I just knew that I wanted to do this piece with him. The dances he’s composed say exactly what I hoped to say without saying anything at all….

I do want to give a proper shout-out to my husband, since without him, I’d never have written a single play at all. Chuck encouraged me to start writing plays. After years of academic writing, I felt very skeptical that I could enjoy writing creatively. Writing, I thought, was a very serious task. But playwriting has been pure fun and has really changed my relationship to writing altogether. I see now that writing is really so much about structuring an experience.