review: The Trojan Women

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by Ellen McLaughlin adapted from Euripides
Directed by Anne Cecelia Haney
Featuring The Bats
Flea Theatre 41 White Street
August 24, 2016 – September 26, 2016 [opened September 1, 2016]
production site

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[L-R] Clea DeCrane, Rebeca Rad (as Helen), Jenny Jarnagin, DeAnna Supplee (as Hecuba), Chun Cho, Amanda Centeno. Photo by Allison Stock.
Adapter Ellen McLaughlin has pared and focused, and world events persist in keeping the themes of Euripides’ The Trojan Women relevant: war devastates both the fighting soldiers and the residents of countries where warfare takes place. In McLaughlin’s 1995 adaptation or a story of war’s devastating effects, inspired by the Bosnian war and its refugees, we meet in the remnants of the Trojan War colored by myth the women that war’s devastation have left behind — be-turbaned Hecuba (DeAnna Supplee), wild-eyed Cassandra (Lindsley Howard), and new mother Adromache (Casey Wortmann), the woman Helen (Rebeca Rad) purported to have been caused the war, the god Poseidon (Thomas Muccioli), and soldier Talthybiu (Phil Feldman) claiming the spoils of war, the surviving women as slaves.

The story continues to resonate many centuries after the original events, through the myth that arose around the Trojan War, competing city-states, and the kidnapping of a woman that started it all. The women and children of war, living the after effects. McLaughlin herself notes the play’s theme became homesickness” and this is clear in the Flea’s production the young Bats company presents. Her adaptation in the ’90s used the multiple languages of Bosnian War refugees that had arrived in New York City as well as English. Other productions have used different language fragments. The Flea’s production is entirely in English, animated by several delightful and sometimes slightly terrifying Fury-invoking choreographed sequences (by Joya Powell) that animate the otherwise quite literary text.

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Rebeca Rad (as Helen in yellow, center) and chorus. Photo by Allison Stock.

Haney’s direction is functional, fluid, and presentational, greatly punctuated by costuming by Marte Johanne Ekhougen , who has also crafted minimal set design out of the already somewhat devastated bare-bones Flea basement space. We exist primarily in a mythical universe in which gods and half gods live among mortals in togs with the single soldier wearing contemporary military garb. Lighting design by Scot Gianelli and Sound design by Ben Vigus evoke when necessary distant guns, explosions and fire, but our focus remains on the words, on these women, and the ruin of their lives in their here and now.

Director and designer collaboration in many small moments, such as the play’s initial set up which awaits the entering audience: chorus and Hecuba asleep, blindfolded (whether to facility sleep is not explained), strewn across the stage. Throughout the production, gowns are fragments, effectively color-coded to roles and status — chorus in grey tones, Helen in vibrant yellow eventually stained by blood and dirt, future-seeing Cassandra in white, and new mother Andromache in pink with her adorable and endangered doll baby.

The inert female presences augment the initial words of the play from the god Poseidon, visiting to remark on Troy’s ruins before the chorus around him, awakening, speaks next. For the remainder of the play, in effect, we awaken with the chorus and the other characters, to a Hellscape world.

The youth of the Bats ensemble reads in their performances. Dances are deftly delivered, bodies move confidently in space, speeches are articulately delivered, yes. But the depth of experience behind the devastation of the war-torn universe of the play is not quite evoked. I yearned for vocal quality variation; though the events are traumatic and everyone is indeed at their exhausted wit’s end, the insistent delivery of meaningful speeches was wearying. Perhaps the actors have found some modulation in subsequent performances.

Yet, I was pleased to go along this intermission-less ride. The beauty of Helen transcended, history was brought to life in a moment, moments devasted. And some speeches held me rapt. Helen says, to the Trojan woman still blind with rage at her role in their destruction, “I alone belong to both sides of battle. Have you never thought of that?” No, in fact, these women have not, and we understand, as characters in this play’s universe, why they haven’t. And we weep with them.

In some place between remembering and forgetting, in yearning to remember and aching to forget, these women, these bearers of burdens, endure. This adaptation of the myth of real human historical tragedy of war merits multiple productions more.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 6, 2016)

Playwright | Ellen McLaughlin adapted from Euripides
Director | Anne Cecelia Haney
Set and Costume Design | Marte Johanne Ekhougen
Lighting Design | Scot Gianelli
Sound Design | Ben Vigus
Choreography | Joya Powell

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