Euripides

Woman's Woe

Review of The Trojan Women, Yale Summer Cabaret

Ellen McLaughlin’s adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, originally aimed as a response to the Balkans war in the mid-nineties, is now given a riveting production at Yale Summer Cabaret, directed by co-artistic director Shadi Ghaheri. In Ghaheri’s version, we’re meant to think of the atrocities currently being perpetrated in Syria, with the production’s research into the war there and the situation of refugees and women sold into slavery acting as a catalyst to the passions and sorrows on view here. The set, by Gerardo Díaz Sánchez, is an eloquent vision of a devastated domestic space, covered in rubble and the dust of destroyed buildings.

The situation: the great city of Troy has fallen, thanks to the ruse of the infamous Trojan horse. The heroes of the Greek army are dividing the captive Trojan women amongst themselves along with any other spoils before destroying the city forever. Onstage, we see only the women. In Euripides, Meneleus, Helen’s estranged husband, gets a scene, but is absent here, and the few male roles—Poseidon (Evelyn Giovine) and Talthybius (Rachel Kenney), a Greek envoy, are played by women. The cast is excellent, and Ghaheri’s direction lets the pacing of movement, speech, emotive song, and several striking tableaux involve us in a world where, with the war ended, time seems to have stopped in a limbo of grief and apprehensive horror.

The Trojan women (Danielle Chaves, Kineta Kunutu, Evelyn Giovine, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Sohina Sidhu, Rachel Kenney) (photo: Leandro A. Zaneti)

The Trojan women (Danielle Chaves, Kineta Kunutu, Evelyn Giovine, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Sohina Sidhu, Rachel Kenney) (photo: Leandro A. Zaneti)

Indeed, even in Euripides day, nearly 2500 years ago, the play was a response to wartime atrocities and a call for the need to treat the vanquished humanely. The perspective of the women of Troy, once proud aristocrats now become “chattel” in the hands of the killers of their husbands, fathers, and sons, is presented by the Greek text in full tragic register. McLaughlin’s version amplifies the psychology of the women and creates a stunning scene between Hecuba (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), widow of Priam, king of Troy, and Helen (Sohina Sidhu), the Argive captive whose status as concubine to Hecuba’s son Paris was the cause of the siege.

The primary women here are differentiated by their view of what comes next, and McLaughlin places much dramatic consequence on how the individual women view themselves as they look upon their fates. In her showdown with Hecuba, Helen says she will return to her husband’s kingdom as his recovered queen. And yet, she claims, she feels grief for Troy as, all along, she was divided in her allegiance. It’s a statement that goes a long way to humanizing Helen—generally vilified as a whore or praised as a paragon, with neither view accurate to her condition. Hers is a unique position, and Sidhu’s increasingly agitated rendering of her fall lends force to her claim: she was fated to be who she is by none of her doing. For the Trojan women to blame her—as Hecuba would like—is perversely to give agency to a woman where she in fact has none. In Euripides, the scene plays out as quibbling about Helen’s veracity, but McLaughlin gives her a speech worthy of a modern heroine, one who can see only a tragic view of her beauty.

Hecuba (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), Andromache (Kineta Kunutu), Cassandra (Danielle Chaves) (photo: Leandro A. Zaneti)

Hecuba (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), Andromache (Kineta Kunutu), Cassandra (Danielle Chaves) (photo: Leandro A. Zaneti)

McLaughlin’s speech for Hecuba’s daughter Cassandra (Danielle Chaves), deemed mad but actually a prophetess, becomes a revelation of grief, spite, and a deranged glee that Chaves delivers with fine-tuned force. The widow of the great hero Hector, Andromache (Kineta Kunutu), at first puts all her faith in the fortune of her infant son, Astyanax. She even wonders if, somehow, she could find a way to love a man who had destroyed her home and husband. She represents a kind of survivalist hope that finds in life a reason to live. The blow the Greeks aim at her is wrenching and cruel, but the scene is handled with great tact by Kenney as the bringer of bad news and is made a tour de force for Kunutu to bare the raw nerves of the powerless facing the unbearable.

Andromache (Kineta Kunutu) with Astyanax (photo: Leandro A. Zaneti)

Andromache (Kineta Kunutu) with Astyanax (photo: Leandro A. Zaneti)

These days, it seems, theater may be entering an era of going for the jugular. The Public’s recent staging of Julius Caesar had protesters rushing on the stage to interfere with the action, and the new stage production of 1984, now in previews in New York, enacts scenes of torture with such fidelity that audience members, during the London run, asked actors to stop. Ghaheri’s production of The Trojan Women is in the spirit of such theatrical confrontation. Here, the misery of these women is made manifest with little in the way of mitigation or uplift. And yet the quality of McLaughlin’s text and its extremely effective staging—with praise for Elizabeth Green’s lighting, and Frederick Kennedy’s sound design and musical accompaniment, and Cole McCarty’s spare but lovely costumes—give us at last a vision of the strength of humanity in even the worst duress.

Much of the play’s ultimate effect lies with the majestic figure of Hecuba as played by Antoinette Crowe-Legacy. Hers is a bearing of great regal hauteur that, when it cracks into sorrow and lament, is all the more powerful. Her eyes seem always to be on something else—the greatness of the past, the favor of the gods—and even when she must ponder the disgrace of her likely condition in the home of Odysseus, she sees and speaks with a force of knowing that is anything but broken. Crowe-Legacy’s Hecuba makes us glimpse not a fallen monarch no longer a master of her fate, but a powerful presence still able to master herself.

The Trojan Women is a play for these days of hostility and hatred, showing that, even in the most vicious defeat, there is reason to live, and that war is always an affront to common humanity. In Ghaheri’s production, which has to be one of the best renderings of McLaughlin’s adaptation (judging by comments on other productions online), viewers will find what I feel sure is one of the most harrowing theatrical experiences in New Haven in some time and for some time.

 

The Trojan Women
Adapted by Ellen McLaughlin
From the play by Euripides
Directed by Shadi Ghaheri

Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Scenic Design: Gerardo Díaz Sánchez; Costume Design: Cole McCarty; Lighting Design: Elizabeth Green; Sound Design: Frederick C. Kennedy; Stage Manager: Christina Fontana

Cast: Danielle Chaves, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Evelyn Giovine, Rachel Kenney, Kineta Kunutu, Sohina Sidhu

 

Yale Summer Cabaret
June 23-July 2, 2017

Apotheosis, Anyone?

About fate they were never wrong, the ancient Greeks. In Euripides’ two plays centered on Agamemnon’s ill-fated daughter Iphigenia, as adapted into Iphigenia Among the Stars by Jack Tamburri and Ben Fainstein of Yale School of Drama and now playing at the Iseman Theater, fate decrees, first, that Iphigenia must be sacrificed so that the Greek fleets may depart Aulis for Troy, then that Iphigenia should, in Tauris, serve Artemis, the goddess who, in some versions of the story, spared the girl’s life.  Certainly, we might say that human life is at the mercy of the gods, but, in the Greek system of things, even the gods must bow to necessity (or ananke).

The problem with ancient Greek drama, generally, is that it seems so…ancient.  Its view of human affairs is not much encountered in our contemporary world—except in the Space Operas popular in science-fiction and fantasy films, and in comic books. Only in outlandish “other worlds” can characters—with a straight-face, as it were—speak of their own existence with the pomposity of personages who, in the Greek view of drama, were truly above and beyond the common run of mankind. The happy high concept of Tamburri’s Iphigenia is that it marries a telling grasp of the plays to staging, costuming, and set-design right out of Star Trek by way of the Marvel Comics Universe.

That may sound like a cue for campy take-offs of B-movie matinees featuring the likes of Steve Reeves or some other muscle-bound clod (like that Austrian weight-lifter turned actor turned governor), but that’s not the way Tamburri and company play it.  And the production wisely places Iphigenia at Tauris before Iphigenia at Aulis—so we get a more comic Act One before a heavier Act Two—thus allowing Iphigenia Among the Stars to end, more or less, with Iphigenia’s show-stopping speech in which the heroine (Sheria Irving, truly transported beyond this instant) concedes the need for her own death.

The plot is indeed served by this interesting arrangement of parts, but let’s talk about the design.  This is one you have to see for yourself.  The set and costumes go a long way to transport us to the feel of a Star Trek episode (the original series, in the Sixties)—the be-glittered Chorus (Ashton Heyl, Marissa Neitling, Carly Zien) seem like they should open with “when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars”—an effect helped by references to “the Oraculons.”  And when we finally meet Thoas, the King of Tauris (Winston Duke), we see a creature that seems to move like an animatronic illustration.  The Marvel Comics aesthetic is well-served not only by the colors (I don’t know what to call the blue worn by Orestes (Mamoudou Athie) and Pylades (Paul Pryce) but the Comix-lover in me loved it) but especially by an arch above the stage upon which projections (Michael F. Bergman) recreate at times the “background panels” of comics.  The projections also add a comic Comix touch to the moment when Achilles (Athie again, in successively more absurd—impressively so—costumes) thumps the ground with his fist, sparking some “clobberin’ time” animation.  And when shestalks into her temple at the end of Act One, Artemis (Ceci Fernandez) looks a bit like that big Destroyer thing Loki sent to earth to beat-up Thor, and sounds like a goddess on steroids.

And that’s just some of the fun on view. Did I mention how much I loved the capes worn by Agamemnon (Pryce) and Menelaus (Duke)?  OK, now I did.  And check out the canary yellow gown with black accents on Clytemnestra (Fernandez).  Then there’s the language itself—Thoas’ mannered utterances pleased me to no end, as did Chris Bannow, both as a Herdsman beside himself with TMI, and as an Old Slave more charming than The Robot on Lost in Space who has to “compute” the contrary and counterfactual messages he must deliver.  A real high point, in Act One, is the trenchant stichomythia between Iphigenia and Orestes leading to a truly affecting recognition scene.  Tamburri makes sure his cast makes the most of such question-and-answer exchanges—a comical instance takes place later in Act One between Thoas and Iphigenia, when the latter is stealing away with the temple icon.

As Iphigenia, Irving takes us through many changes—from the no-nonsense priestess ready to sacrifice prisoners for Tauris, to the softened sister of Orestes, ready to risk death to free him and Pylades and steal away with them, to a virginal girl, expecting to be married to great warrior Achilles, to a sacrificial figure herself, beseeching her own father for mercy, and, finally, the willing victim who, by that act, becomes something else: Heroic? Mythic? The Embodied Will of Ananke? A chick with super-powers?  How about all of the above?

As Artemis, Ceci Fernandez gets to end Act One with a bang and plays future regicide Clytemnestra with the mien of a haughty Westchester County matron—she’s fun!  Mamoudou Athie, as Orestes, has a long-suffering air and, in the recognition scene, a precision that helps sell it; as Achilles, he postures and pivots in skin-tight briefs, and speaks as if the famed warrior is also a self-involved asshole—much sport is had at the hero’s expense.  Winston Duke, as Menelaus, is also very much into having his way, and, as Thoas, is a real treat.  Paul Pryce plays good support as Pylades, and as the much-tried Agamemnon put me in mind of a certain leader of our day who has often to face a shit storm with equanimity.

In fact, the overtones of the play, for our times, seem to be about each person recognizing their own duty in the design of things.  To that end, a great feature was the use of the Chorus who, at the start of Act Two, clothes in shreds and faces sooty, have to cope with their fall from the sky and from the favor of the goddess, and their return to the past to see what they can see of a different future.  They, like us, look on to see how alignment with one’s fate turns on a dime, from fighting it to “the readiness is all.”  And that means that we, like them, have to learn what it is what we see means.

In bringing new spin to an ancient tale, Iphigenia Among the Stars is stellar.

Iphigenia Among the Stars

Adapted from Euripides by Benjamin Fainstein

Conceived and directed by Jack Tamburri

Jabari Brisport: choreographer; Christopher Ash: scenic designer; KJ Kim: costume designer; Benjamin Ehrenreich: lighting designer; Steven Brush: composer and sound designer; Michael F. Bergmann: projection designer; Benjamin Fainstein: production dramaturg; Robert Chikar: stage manager

Yale School of Drama

October 31-November 3, 2012