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.
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.
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.
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