The only surviving play of Euripides' Trojan War trilogy of 415 BC, The Trojan Women doesn't have much of a plot. Most of the tragedy already has occurred. The city of Troy has been destroyed, its men have been killed, and the women are being assigned as slaves to victorious Greek leaders. The women of the royal family keen for their fallen city and bewail their fate in a powerfully direct indictment of the devastation of war.
Now Aurora Theatre Company unveils the professional world premiere of Ellen McLaughlin's modern adaptation that is so pared down and reworked to be essentially a new play, although true to the basic spirit, story, and structure of the original, in which Hecuba and her chorus hold court in the ruins while other characters enter, say their piece, and leave.
Best known as an actor, for originating the angel role in Angels in America, playwright McLaughlin has adapted a number of other ancient Greek plays. Founding artistic director Barbara Oliver staged McLaughlin's version of Aeschylus' The Persians at Aurora in 2004. The Trojan Women is an unusual case, originally written for a 1995 workshop with recent Balkan refugees.
Working with a cast of Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims scarred from a conflict that was still raging at the time, McLaughlin double-cast roles to have members of different groups work together on the same parts, used poetic repetition throughout as lines were spoken in three different languages, and cut some of the most overtly adversarial elements in Euripides' play: Athena, who only shows up to ask Poseidon to make the Greeks' voyage home as difficult as possible, and conquering Menelaus, who comes to judge his wandering wife Helen with Hecuba speaking for the prosecution and Helen for the defense.
Wanting to stay away from us-and-them dynamics, McLaughlin retained only one of the Greek characters: the conflicted soldier Talthybius, deeply apologetic for the atrocities he's been asked to inflict. Helen was initially cut as well, but McLaughlin reinserted her in a 2003 rewrite for a college production. Without Menelaus, it's a substantially different scene that brings Helen and Hecuba into direct conflict.
Although roles also were doubled in the university staging, director Oliver sticks to one actor per character in the Aurora production, aside from the six-woman chorus. There are a smattering of foreign languages in the most repetitious of the chorus parts, in which the women memorialize their former lives. Oliver's staging lingers lovingly on some of the more stylized, poetic aspects of McLaughlin's script, but doesn't seem much interested in its ambiguity.
Nora el Samahy has an effectively imperious stare as Helen of Troy, but even when she's arguing for her life, we're not allowed to see much more to her than the haughty hottie in the fur coat and red dress. There's something to what Helen says about the Trojan's new lives as spoils of war being nothing new to her, but Hecuba isn't hearing it, and neither are we. Oliver firmly assigns our sympathies elsewhere.
Similarly, if you listen to the soldier Talthybius' words, you can hear that he's trying in his way to comfort Hecuba's daughter-in-law Andromache as he demands of her a horrific sacrifice, but that sympathy is nowhere visible in Matthew Purdon's portrayal of a gruff American soldier in desert fatigues who just wants to move things along. What's Hecuba to him?
These might seem like individual acting choices were the whole production not distinguished by the same lack of subtlety. Prophetic Cassandra has a fascinating speech about the doom that awaits her, but it gets buried between Sarah Nealis' wacky portrayal of madness and distracting echoes that might be due to resonances in the set, John Iacovelli's impressive replica of Embarcadero Center's Vaillancourt Fountain. They also would be consistent with Chris Houston's sound design, replete with throbbing white noise and often grating music. The moody blues of Jim Cave's lighting reinforce the oppressive atmosphere in less intrusive ways.
The opening of the show, with an electric guitar power chord and a chorine running down one of the structure's diagonal chutes, seems straight out of a Mountain Dew commercial. Only the gravitas that Julian López-Morillas brings to the sea god Poseidon saves his entrance from chuckles, as he's dressed in a naval dress whites reminiscent of The Love Boat and accompanied by the sound of seagulls. (Anna Oliver's costumes are a sampler of modernity, from hospital scrubs to a schoolgirl uniform.)
Carla Spindt orates elegantly enough as the queen of Troy, but her Hecuba is so bland that it's hard to get especially worked up by her lamentations. The only performance that packs an emotional punch is Emilie Talbot as Andromache, and it's a haymaker. Pacing with a squalling baby bundle that seems recycled from Aurora's previous show Satellites, Talbot lets the words spill out of her hysterically, as if she's hardly conscious of what she's saying. It's a devastating moment, all the more so because it underscores the resonance that's lacking in the rest of the hour-long production, echo effects notwithstanding.
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