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Theatre in Review: The Trojan Women (The Flea Theater)

Rebecca Rad. Photo: Allison Stock

Ellen McLaughlin treats Euripides' tragedy, about the aftermath of the siege of Troy, with a very free hand in her adaptation, but she never loses contact with the original text's stark portrait of women in wartime, subject to horrific punishments for the crime of belonging to the losing side. Some of her alterations are substantial: Certain characters have been eliminated, including the goddess Athena, who, in Euripides, introduces the play in concert with Poseidon, and Menelaus, the vengeful husband of Helen. Since Menelaus is not available to drag Helen off to her eventual death, she is instead brutalized, offstage, by the women of the chorus, who vent their rage against her for triggering the conflict that has brought them to ruin. This is an interesting development, altering slightly our view of the title characters, who, for all their fury and eloquence, are presented by Euripides as abject figures; in McLaughlin's version, if only for one brief moment, the women give as good as they get. Indeed, the entrance of Helen, bloodied and shaken, is one of the production's more memorable moments.

It is not the only one. McLaughlin's text, in its direct, plainspoken way, has the compression of poetry and the savage glint of a well-honed sword blade; it is especially acute in its treatment of women as prizes in wartime. Looking at Helen with disgust, Hecuba, queen of the Trojans, says, "The contempt of the world you'll know soon enough. When you rise from your raping beds, wiping your eyes and smoothing your skirts down over your thighs, now purple with your new master's handprints, perhaps you'll think of me." Cassandra, preparing to be carried off by Agamemnon to Greece and her fateful role in the Oresteia, prophesizes: "For when he carries me with him, he carries his death. The ax is on him. And on mad me. Oh yes, I am there, naked beside him in the open grave. I see us both. But we shall both be dead." Andromache, pushed to the edge of madness by the death of her husband, Hector, and faced with a future as concubine to Achilles' son, confronts a Greek soldier, asking, "What can you possibly do to us that is worse than what has been done? Kill us? We would sleep in the surrender of our misery. Rape us? We are already tagged for parcel to our different rapes. There is nothing we have left to fear."

Andromache is wrong about that, as she soon discovers to her horror. The danger with any production of The Trojan Women is that its parade of atrocities, each accompanied by fresh lamentations, can grow monotonous. But under Anne Cecelia Haney's measured, yet relentless, direction, the play's implacable march to a place where hope no longer exists remains steadily engrossing and often powerfully affecting. Working with The Bats, the in-house troupe of young talents at The Flea, she has overseen several fine performances. DeAnna Supplee's Hecuba retains her dignity -- and her sharp tongue -- in even the most terrible circumstances. Rebeca Rad's Helen is a prime opportunist, ever ready to blame others for her misfortune. (Hatred, she notes, "is all I have ever known. Bought and bundled from one bedroom to the next to write beneath my many conquerors." Hecuba, I might add, is not impressed.) Lindsley Howard's Cassandra is borderline deranged, laughing madly as she delivers prophecies that will surely be ignored. Casey Wortmann's Andromache is the production's most heartbreaking figure, tenderly caressing her infant son before he is cruelly taken away to be killed. On the male side, Thomas Muccioli achieves an otherworldly aura as Poseidon, and Phil Feldman, in modern-day army garb, is effective as Talthybius, the open-faced Trojan soldier who flinches at the dirty work he has been assigned.

Talthybius' modern costume points out what is probably the production's biggest weakness. Marte Johanne Ekhougen's set, a bare space enclosed by two-tone institutional walls with a string of bare bulbs hanging overhead, seems to place us in the world of the contemporary refugee crisis: We could be in a holding pen housing Syrians on the islands of Lampedusa in Italy or Leros in Greece. However, Ekhougen employs a modified toga look for the women that is clearly of the classical world. It's an approach that tries to place the action simultaneously in 2016 and 1,200 years before the birth of Christ; the result is a slightly fuzzy impression, lacking the rigorous specificity of the rest of the production. Another weakness is the stylized movement by Joya Powell, which is used only occasionally and isn't well integrated into the staging.

Still, Scot Gianelli's lighting is both detailed and surprisingly beautiful -- with its low ceiling, the downstairs theatre at the Flea is a very difficult venue for lighting designers -- and Ben Vigus' sound design contributes some evocative effects. What is right with this production far outweighs what is questionable about it, and good productions of early Greek plays are so rare in New York that one shouldn't pass up the opportunity to see this one. As a vest-pocket staging with a young and relatively inexperienced cast, one might view this Trojan Women with suspicion, but I can say without reservation that the spirit of Greek tragedy is alive at the Flea. -- David Barbour

(12 September 2016)

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