Shadi Ghaheri

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

Canon Redux

Sneak Peak at Yale Summer Cabaret 2017

The upcoming season at the Yale Summer Cabaret will be announced today. Co-Artistic Directors Rory Pelsue and Shadi Ghaheri have planned four plays, “adaptations of four pre-20th century European works, updated and directed by living women, queer artists, and artists of color as a radical and provocative response to the theatrical ‘canon.’”  Called “Canon Balle,” the 43rd season of the Summer Cabaret looks to be a provocative interrogation of canonical works, reconfigured by the pressures and interests of contemporary theater-makers and theater-goers.

The Yale Summer Cabaret team: Rory Pelsue and Shadi Ghaheri (seated); Trent Anderson, Dashiell Menard, Leandro A. Zanetti (standing)

The Yale Summer Cabaret team: Rory Pelsue and Shadi Ghaheri (seated); Trent Anderson, Dashiell Menard, Leandro A. Zanetti (standing)

First up, June 2-11, is Shakespeare’s Antony + Cleopatra, adapted by Rory Pelsue. Pelsue, a rising third-year director at the Yale School of Drama, presented a staging of Othello as his second-year Shakespeare project that was a dramatic enactment of passions held to a knife’s edge, exploring the sexual tension between Othello and Iago, as well as Othello and Desdemona. While it is well-known that all parts in Shakespeare’s theater were enacted by men, Pelsue’s all-male Antony + Cleopatra will bring a decidedly drag element to the play, described as “playful and anarchic,” with a “butch” Antony having to face his feelings for a seductively femme Cleopatra.

Next, Shadi Ghaheri, also a rising third-year director at YSD, whose presentation of Titus Andronicus this spring was a take-no-prisoners assault of political vengeance and victimization, undertakes Euripides’ Trojan Women, a play about the fate of women in Troy after the death of the hero Hector and the fall of the city in the famed war against the invading Greeks. This all-female production of a 1995 translation by Ellen McLaughlin takes its cue from the war in Bosnia, but addresses the role of women in war from 400 BC to the present day. June 23-July 2

August Strindberg’s Miss Julie is a classic, late nineteenth-century play of the conflict between class and gender. As adapted by South-African playwright Yaël Farber, Mies Julie, set on a remote farm in post-Apartheid South Africa, ratchets up the drama with interracial and colonialist tensions not present in the original. Directed by Pelsue, July 14-23

Young Jean Lee is an experimental artist known for provocative approaches to theater. The final show of the season is her take on the story of King Lear. In Lear, directed by Ghaheri, the focus is on the twenty-something children of raging and abused parents, Lear and Gloucester. Will the change in perspective humanize the younger generation or show them to be as mad as their suffering parents? August 4-13

Stay tuned for previews and reviews of the individual plays as the summer gets closer. For information about tickets, including 4-ticket passes at $100 or 8-ticket passes for $192, check out the Summer Cabaret’s website, beginning May 8.

In summer in New Haven, the Yale Summer Cabaret is the hottest show in town.

Yale Summer Cabaret
Season 43
Canon Balle

Artistic Directors: Rory Pelsue, Shadi Ghaheri
Managing Director: Leandro A. Zaneti; General Manager: Trent Anderson; Production Director: Dashiell Menard

June 2-August 13, 2017

Suffer in Silence

Review of The Slow Sound of Snow, Yale Cabaret

A family huddled together in their home, fearing to make a sound. Are they in hiding from oppressive forces? Yes, but in The Slow Sound of Snow, adapted by Jaber Ramezani and Payam Saeedi from Turkish playwright Tuncer Cücenoğlu’s The Avalanche, directed by second-year director Shadi Ghaheri at Yale Cabaret, the force of oppression is the threat of avalanche for these mountain dwellers.

Yashar (Courtney Jamison), Sayrash (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Yashar (Courtney Jamison), Sayrash (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

As the play unfolds, almost in slow motion at times, in a silence so pervasive the breaths of the characters are quite audible in Tye Hunt Fitzgerald’s arresting sound design, its action is intense and hypnotic. Yashar (Courtney Jamison), a pregnant woman, lies on the floor in an abode shared with her husband Talaz (James Udom), her father-in-law, Eli Arkha (Seta Wainiqolo), and his mother Sayrash (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy). The concern of the entire family is when her child will be born. In this country, births are only permitted in the non-winter months, which number at most two or three. The sound of giving birth and the cries of the baby, the folk here believe, will bring on an inevitable avalanche.

The play’s folkloric quality is enhanced by the visitation of a young girl (Stefani Kuo) who flits in and speaks loudly about herself, rattling on into the other characters’ oppressed silence. Her manner is so different from theirs, her role in all this seems questionable. And Kuo doubles as an odd talismanic figure, with a wolf’s head, carrying a white suitcase that, we’re told, Eli Arkha’s wife took with her when she left. Leaving, in what are apparently the trackless wastes of winter in this locality, is deemed “madness.” What isn’t considered madness, in a kind of Shirley Jackson manner, is burying pregnant women alive or smothering them so they don’t give birth during winter. Like a “just so” story or myth or folktale, the situation, in Ramezani and Saeedi’s telling, must be accepted. The more remarkable aspect of the play isn’t in “the set up” per se, but in how it is conveyed.

The logic of the actions is left for us to intuit. It's the relations between the characters, even when almost wordless, that are vivid and persistent. The actors playing the family are uniformly excellent, keeping the situation close to its existential core. The weariness in Crowe-Legacy’s every move; the furtive guilt of Udom’s Talaz, who knows it's his fault his wife will give birth in the interdicted season; the intensity of Wainiqolo’s patriarch who seems so burdened by life, his every move and thought feels constricted; the deep, unspoken misery of Jamison’s Yashar, a woman who should be happy and who seems the most burdened of all. Late in the play, a struggle between the two men and a simultaneous suppression of the younger woman by the elder seem not only matters of life or death but a writhing battle of the life force against an unbearable repression (kudos to fight choreographer Jonathan Higginbotham).

Eli Arkha (Seta Wainiqolo), Talaz (James Udom), Sayrash (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), Yashar (Courtney Jamison) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Eli Arkha (Seta Wainiqolo), Talaz (James Udom), Sayrash (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), Yashar (Courtney Jamison) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

What audiences might find in this tale, beyond some vague notion of what it’s like to live in mountainous wastes, is left open-ended by the play’s rendering. Each character is oddly moving, an exhibit of humanity circumscribed by extremely limited bounds, and each is put across as an actual fact. A telling of the story could seem parable-like; Ghaheri’s staging of the tale, with actors fully inhabiting these roles, is a spellbinding glimpse into that abyss where the living choose to preserve their own lives at whatever cost.

Talaz (James Udom) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Talaz (James Udom) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Lighting, sets, costumes, all help create a believable world. And many elements in the telling—the rumble of a possible avalanche, the sound of a baby crying, the musical instrument that Talaz threatens at one point to strum, the visiting girl’s ululation, the dripping of a carcass hung up to dry, the sweet cooing of Talaz and Yashar, Eli Arkha’s attempt to bond with his son by talking of the local circumciser, Sayrash’s long-suffering face, the surreal wolf in a skirt with a suitcase—add up to a fully wrought and fascinating night of theater, not soon forgotten.

 

The Slow Sound of Snow
By Jaber Ramezani and Payam Saeedi, adapted from The Avalanche by Tuncer Cücenoğlu
Directed and translated by Shadi Ghaheri

Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Set Designers: An-Lin Dauber and Stephanie Cohen; Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz; Costume Designer: Sophia Choi; Sound Designer: Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Fight Choreographer: Jonathan Higginbotham; Props Master: Michael Schermann; Stage Manager: Michael Schermann; Producers: Trent Anderson and Armando Huipe

Cast: Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Courtney Jamison, Stefani Kuo, James Udom, Seta Wainiqolo

Yale Cabaret
October 13-15, 2016

The Cabaret is dark this week, then returns October 27-29, with Current Location, by Toshiki Okada, directed by Josh Goulding, inspired by Japan's attempts to deal with a nuclear disaster in the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.

Be Our Geist

Review of Adam Geist, Yale Summer Cabaret

In dramatizing the struggle of its eponymous hero, Adam Geist—in its U.S. premiere, directed by Elizabeth Dinkova from David Tushingham’s translation of Dea Loher’s play—covers a lot of ground. Located mainly in late twentieth-century Austria, Adam, played with impressive range by Julian Elijah Martinez, moves through the modern world as if on a picaresque odyssey. Adam’s restless energy drives the play as he seems to be perpetually in flight from his most recent encounter. Inventive staging, colorful projections, and a varying ensemble put the play across as a series of events that keeps us questioning at every turn.

In his travails, beginning with the loss of his mother and his break with his uneasy and belittling relatives, Adam encounters drug-sellers, druggy Turks, a forthright waif (Shadi Ghaheri), firefighters—including Karl (Kevin Hourigan), who identifies as Sioux—the French Foreign Legion, ultra-right populists, engages in war, and tries to find redemption with cultists of the Virgin. With action that includes a shocking rape, brutal murders, violent attacks, humiliation of prisoners, and questionable choices and rationales, Adam Geist is not a study in its hero’s character so much as a study of the character of modern times, particularly the prevalence of dehumanizing brutality at the bottom of society.

Adam Geist (Julian Elijah Martinez)

Adam Geist (Julian Elijah Martinez)

With a name like Adam Geist, we can expect allegory right off. Adam, of course, is the “first man,” God-created in a terrestrial paradise; Adam Geist never knew his father, and his mother—who seems to have indulged in a little molestation of pre-adolescent Adam—is dead of skin cancer as the play opens. Rather than a paradise, Adam's life projects him through what may seem circles of Hell, or perhaps Purgatory. Not an afterlife, this hell comes from other people, right enough, and any saving graces generally wind up dead. “Geist” is German for “spirit” or “mind,” the latter written with a capital M when it becomes a matter of the “world-spirit” that Hegel considered the noumenal force driving things in our phenomenal world (that’s “world of phenomena,” not “really great” world). Adam Geist, then, could easily be the requisite “concrete universal” who might reveal the tendency of history, or take away or take on, scapegoat fashion, the sins of the world, or maybe become a violent, victimized, mentally unstable upstart from a “special school,” just trying to get by. In any case, this pilgrim’s progress does arrive at a certain clarity about himself, and it is left to the viewer how much slack you want to give him, or how touching you find his plight, or repellent his nature.

The Summer Cab’s staging wisely lets Sarah Woodham’s careful costuming give us different locations and interlocutors, rather than cumbersome set changes. All the action could easily be imagined to be happening in some timeless past—as it might look from Adam’s viewpoint. What he remembers are the people who make an impression, like Girl (Ghaheri), who he meets in the graveyard where their respective mothers are buried—his encounter with her is at first endearing, then very unsettling, and finally haunting. Similarly, the kindest person he meets, Karl the Native American enthusiast, played with childlike open heart by Hourigan, seems to provide some personal hope for Adam, before that possibility too is wrenched away.

Mourners in Adam Geist: Julian Elijah Martinez, Sean Boyce Johnson, Sebastian Arboleda, Steven Lee Johnson, Kevin Hourigan

Mourners in Adam Geist: Julian Elijah Martinez, Sean Boyce Johnson, Sebastian Arboleda, Steven Lee Johnson, Kevin Hourigan

And so it goes. Elsewhere there are heroic acts, usually with Adam taking the part of someone more powerless than he, and also acts of murderous rage that he barely acknowledges. Martinez shows us an Adam driven mostly by immediate feeling, whose intellect is a few steps behind his more forceful drives. There’s a wild Id on the loose feel about much of what Adam does and his nature seems primarily reactive.

So it’s important that the cast gives him some colorful figures to react to. Stellar in that regard is Brontë England-Nelson who does much of the heavy lifting in ensemble scenes, convincing us that she’s a nervy aunt, a butch fireman, a rapt stoner, a skinhead ideologue, before stepping forward as the creepy small-hood kingpin Reinberger. Sebastian Arboleda gets to engage in a comic monologue as Sergeant Major, a recruiter proud of outfoxing the wily prairie dog; Steven Lee Johnson gets the more unsavory parts, such as a heckling cousin, an autistic skinhead obsessed with cleanliness, and Erich, a belligerent, Muslim-bating mercenary, while Sean Boyce Johnson gives us glimpses of characters—Adam’s uncle, a drug-using buddy, an old man assaulted by Erich—who might provide some learning experience for Adam. Not all the many characters come across as clearly as they might, but the methods that permit these young actors to focus scenes and mannerisms with such quick changes are truly impressive. A high-point is the firefighters’ speech, one of the few merely comic bits in the show. Tonally, it’s a bit at odds, but it is welcome.

Adam's kin (Sean Boyce Johnson, Bronte England-Nelson, Sebastian Arboleda)

Adam's kin (Sean Boyce Johnson, Bronte England-Nelson, Sebastian Arboleda)

In An-Lin Dauber’s set design, a brilliant use of a large section of chain-link fence acts as prop, symbol and set device, while Johnny Moreno’s projections—with becoming graphic-novel-style colors and images, and evocative use of video—add visual interest and imagery. The use of the Cab’s courtyard, while slightly disruptive in terms of logistics, makes for a very dramatic final scene as the open heavens above provide a suitable background to Adam’s acts and speech.

And now, an editorial thought: On the tables at the Cab are questions probing the audience about their expectations in viewing theater. Some questions address “color blind” casting—the notion that the race of an actor is immaterial to the part being played—which is seen as a progressive move allowing more non-white actors to get major roles. But casting actors to play an ethnicity different from their own can open a firestorm over who gets to play whom. In casting Martinez, a non-white actor, as a product of the Austrian underclass, the Cab’s show adds an allegorical level that’s important, it seems to me, in this first U.S. production of the play. When, in his final speech, Adam makes a selfie video addressed to “Mr. President” most viewers aren’t going to be thinking about the president of Austria; they’re going to see a young African-American male trying to put his case before our president, another African-American male, so that when Adam says “perhaps I’m no longer your concern” those lines resonate beyond Loher’s initial setting to take in the current atmosphere of blacklivesmatter. And Adam’s reflection upon some extraterrestrial hope for justice reaches, as intended, beyond international and even human bounds, but also points damningly at the slim chances for justice here and now.

Adam Geist is not a feel-good play, but it is a powerful play that mirrors a time when criminality and heroism, predators and protectors, are as tellingly intertwined in our weekly news reports as ever. Without distorting the original text, the Cab team—Elizabeth Dinkova and dramaturg Gavin Whitehead, with their lead Julian Elijah Martinez—make Adam Geist a tale for our times.

 

Adam Geist
By Dea Loher
Translated by David Tushingham
Directed by Elizabeth Dinkova

Set Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Sound Designer: Frederick Kennedy; Projection Designer: Johnny Moreno; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Costume Designer: Sarah Woodham; Production Dramaturg: Gavin Whitehead; Production Manager/Technical Director: Alix Reynolds; Stage Manager: Emely Selina Zepeda; Movement & Violence Consultant: Emily Lutin; Production Assistant: Ece Alpergun

Cast: Sebastian Arboleda; Brontë England-Nelson; Shadi Ghaheri; Kevin Hourigan; Sean Boyce Johnson; Steven Lee Johnson; Julian Elijah Martinez

Yale Summer Cabaret
July 21-30, 2016