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Wednesday, 18 June 2008

The Trojan Women: Can You Feel Their Pain?

The Trojan Women
By Euripedes; translation by Nicholas Rudall
Directed by Marti Maraden
Featuring Martha Henry, Seana McKenna, Kelli Fox, Yanna McIntosh

The Story: It’s the end of the Trojan War, a campaign waged on Troy by the Greeks that has lasted 10 years. Mourning their ruined city, the defeat of their homeland, and the deaths of their heroes and husbands, the women of Troy lament their gods’ indifference, cast blame on the beauteous Helen as the war’s cause, and fearfully wait to hear what fates their captors have in store for them.

Think about military conflict - any military conflict – and you can pretty much guarantee that its history will be written by the victors, and those victors will take the spoils. Perhaps Euripides first illustrated this in 415BC with this play, and these two truths are reasons why The Trojan Women still resonates. In seeing it, we come face-to-face with war’s powerless victims and we are forced to think about the atrocities they confront even today.

The problem with this production is that for some reason, the audience does not empathize with the women on stage for part of the performance (it is only 90 minutes long, so every minute counts). If we have to remind ourselves that this play is still current, there is something wrong with the way it is being done – we should feel the women’s building horror, anger and despair and feel a deep connection to current events immediately. Yet we do not. In between the truly moving performances of Seana McKenna, Yanna McIntosh and Martha Henry, the women wait to hear news of their fate, and the audience waits for them to get on with it. The angst of the chorus feels superficial, and instead of feeling their pain we instead lose focus and begin to wonder: if they were in such despair why didn’t they hang themselves as an alternative to being slaves or concubines to the Greeks whom they despised so much?

That, of course, is missing the point of the play: that despite the ruin of their lives, these women must, and do, endure. But it does not follow that the audience should endure lapses in what should be an entirely poignant portrait of a society in tatters. It is uncertain whether this is the fault of the acting or direction or the new translation by Nicholas Rudall. The military costumes worn by the Greek soldiers are also distracting: designer John Pennoyer may have meant to illustrate hand-me-down uniforms that have been cobbled together over a ten-year war, they have the unfortunate result of being reminiscent of the gear worn in Mad Max movies. (However, the burka-like robes in muted blues and browns worn by the Trojan women are timeless – they could be Biblical, or they could be what women in desert countries still wear today.)

In between these lapses are some excellent performances. As the constant bearer of bad news, Sean Arbuckle is a compassionate herald Talthybius. Ms. McIntosh as Helen of Troy is beautiful -- and beautifully -- garbed while her peers are in rags. She could be a litigator in the way she defends her actions, but rather than argue like a whiny ninny, she speaks softly, and smoothly seduces the audience as easily as she does Menelaus, her former husband. Opposing her is Ms. Henry as Hecuba; strong despite her age and broken body, scathing in her derision of Helen, yet able to comfort her daughter-in-law Andromache with great gentleness. She is especially touching in her attempt to aid her truthful-but-never-believed daughter Cassandra, who reveals the fates of the odious Greeks (superbly done with feverish, twitchy tension by Kelly Fox). The production’s most heartrending scene belongs to Ms. McKenna as Andromache, whose pain is completely palpable. Her small son is literally torn from her grasp to be killed – for no more reason than that it is feared he will grow up to avenge his father’s death – at which point the soul-piercing wail that Ms. McKenna unleashes will reverberate in your heart for days to come. Go to see The Trojan Women for this scene alone, and bring plenty of tissues.

The Trojan Women continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until October 5th. 1-800-567-1600 for tickets.

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