Thursday, September 1, 2016

56. Review: THE TROJAN WOMEN (seen August 30, 2016)

"Trojan Bore"

Stars range from 5-1.

As anyone who’s ever taken a course in the history of theatre knows, Euripides’ The Trojan Women is considered the first anti-war play ever written. Produced in 415 B.C., it’s said to have been inspired by the heartless slaughter inflicted during the Peloponnesian War by Athens on the citizens of Melos, an Aegean island. The Flea Theatre is currently reviving Ellen McLaughlin’s bare-boned, hour-long, 1996 adaptation, its roles filled by the Bats, the Flea's resident company of young actors. 
Center: Thomas Muccioli. Photo: Allison Stock.
The subject, of course, is the aftermath of the destruction of Troy by the Greeks at the end of the Trojan War, when the city’s suffering women were to be sent into slavery among their captors. A chorus of six represents the women. The principal roles are Hecuba (DeAnna Supplee), the imperious queen; Helen (Rebecca Rad), the great beauty whose abduction by Paris from her husband, Menelaus, led to the war; Cassandra (Lindsley Howard), the prophesying princess, thought mad, designated to become the mistress of the Greek general, Agamemnon; and Andromache (Casey Wortmann), widow of the Trojan hero, Hector. Menelaus has been cut (as has Athena), the only speaking male roles being the god Poseidon (Thomas Muccioli) and the Greek officer Talthybius (Phil Feldman).
Lindsley Howard. Photo: Allison Stock.
Although its antiwar theme has motivated many productions and adaptations, as well as several films (in one of which Katharine Hepburn led an all-star cast as Hecuba), The Trojan Women is exceedingly difficult to pull off successfully. Until its single dramatic scene, when Talthybius commands that Andromache throw her baby off the battlements, the play simply piles on the defeated women’s suffering and lamentations. Unless brilliantly performed by actors who can express true understanding of these women's' plight, boredom will soon arrive. This production, directed by Anne Cecelia Haney, is not brilliantly performed.
Left: Rebecca Rad; center: DeAnna Supplee. Photo: Allison Stock.
Some versions of The Trojan Women have sought to position the play in response to a particular contemporary conflict (there being so many to choose from); McLaughlin’s adaptation was itself sparked by the Bosnian conflict of 1995. When given a staged reading in 1996 it employed a cast composed of people from Yugoslavia and Albania living in New York, some of them refugees.
DeAnna Supplee, Rebeca Rad, and chorus member. Photo: Allison Stock.
Later productions took different tacks and the script itself evolved, including the return of Helen, omitted from McLaughlin’s original. Her presence, dressed in a shimmering green-gold satin of uncertain cultural or period provenance, but with a distracting nose ring, is a welcome one, given the drabness of all the other women’s war-torn shmatas (for reasons best known to herself, though, Hecuba wears silver painted toenails and fingernails, suggesting that the local manicurist, at least, has been spared devastation). Helen also gives the women—who blame her for their tragedy—a target against which to express their anger. When she reenters after her offstage mauling, the bloodied but still proud beauty brings to mind Queen Cersei in “Game of Thrones” after she’s had her own comeuppance.

The chorus actors attempt to individualize their personae, but there are only modest differentiations in the cut and color of their shabby clothing (as well as their hairdos, one woman sporting a buzz cut) to set one off from another; a review for a 2008 West Coast staging says the chorus was dressed as particular modern types: nurse, student, party girl, etc. There’s a vague sense of the Mid-East in designer Marte Johanne Ekhougen’s costumes (she also did the set), and the military gear worn by Talthybius could be that off any soldier in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or wherever, so if you want to think of the misery of the displaced masses over there, you’re free to do so.
Company of The Trojan Women. Photo: Allison Stock.
The walls of the Flea’s tiny downstairs venue have been distressed and painted in a worn-out two-tone pattern of beige above, pale green below; Scott Gianelli provides some effective lighting, and there’s a fine sound design by Ben Vigus. Haney’s production seeks to combine gritty realism with stylized speech and movement—the chorus occasionally shifts to dance, choreographed by Joya Powell.  Several awkward touches intrude, like the obviousness of Andromache’s baby being a rag doll, which only weakens Talthybius’ command to kill it, or Talthybius’ first entrance, staged to make it seem as if he’s hell-bent on bloodshed only for him to reveal he's actually uncomfortable with his mission.
Phil Feldman, Casey Wortmann. Photo: Allison Stock.
The young actors struggle against the demands of the semi-poetic dialogue and the incessant sorrow they must convey. But they're totally overwhelmed by the task. Not even when Andromache’s baby is torn from her arms does the production carry the emotional punch required. This Trojan Women delivers its message; it fails, though, to deliver the goods.


The Flea Theater
41 White St., NYC
Through September 26