nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
January 16, 2008
Greek tragedies are often grand in their themes, poetic in their language, and dramatic in their plots; these are both advantages and disadvantages when they are revived for a modern audience. Such grandeur and scale often create an emotional distance. Therefore it is particularly impressive that Trojan Women, re-imagined by Classical Theatre of Harlem and Harlem Stage, succeeds in transforming a drama about a 2000-year-old war into one concerned with wars not long past or still ongoing, and makes us feel deeply.
The suffering of the Trojan women as the victims of a ten-year war—one that their country has just lost—is revealed immediately as we see women lying behind a wire fence, shattered, weeping, or plain numb. Queen Hecuba holds her grandson in her arms and slowly paces, lost in deep grief. Their men are either dead or captured. The women await their possibly bleaker fate, with the arrival of the victors' messenger. When they start to speak, the unspeakable crimes they have endured spill out, made more shocking as the audience knows from the program that these are true testimonies of victims from the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia. "I don't think I would ever laugh again," quietly states a young girl.
Soon the "diplomat," Talthybius, enters and the story then follows Euripides's original rather closely. He announces that each woman—Hecuba included—will be assigned as a slave to a Greek man. The virgin princess Cassandra, who has been cursed and is thought to be mad, will be taken by the commanding general Agamemnon "for his bed." An even more gruesome end is dealt for Hecuba's grandbaby, who will be dropped from the high temple to his death, in order to prevent any future vengeance by the royal offspring.
All this time there is one woman imprisoned separately and well cared for—the catalyst of the war, Helen. The women hurl curses at her while she remains aloof, chanting, "I am a mirror that reflects men's desire, contempt, indifference, and self-doubt." When her husband Menelaus arrives, she has the task of pleading for her own life. The dynamic between the Trojan women and Helen is one of the emotional highlights of the show. Should one woman be blamed for a war that was defined by men's atrocities?
The only thing I can quibble with in this otherwise stunning show is that it suffers from emotional overdrive. One almost has to brace oneself against the onslaught of ceaseless brutality, either recounted or demonstrated. Perhaps this is the precise point of a play about and against war, but dramatically it lacks certain breathing room and variety. Adaptor and director Alfred Preisser has tried to relieve the stress by making Talthybius a slick, sarcastic, and even funnily apologetic figure. He helpfully suggests that the women accept their lot and cooperate, since: "You lost; if your men could, they'd do exactly the same thing. But they can't, because you lost." The unsentimental matter-of-factness is certainly a real aspect of war and a nice touch for the show, but not quite enough to lift the overwhelming gloom. The problem might also lie in sequencing: after the horrendous accounts of real war survivors, the fate confronting the royal family seems less consequential.
What I took away from the night was the absolutely breathtaking performances by everyone onstage. The actors in the principal roles are so convincing they bridge the past and present, and cross any borders. Lizan Mitchell's Hecuba emanates fiery dignity; Tryphena Wade's Cassandra is wildly intelligent; Zainab Jah's Helen is all allure and spell; and Michael Early's Talthybius is top-notch entertainment. The direction by Preisser is layered and nuanced, with songs and movements that are beautiful despite the wrenching subject matter. The set design by Troy Hourie is innovative and striking. From the beginning to the end it is hard to take your eyes away from for even a moment.
This production returns after a 2004 run, and it is one of those shows I wish a long and recurring presence. What is depressing is that there is no shortage of victims' testimonies from ongoing and new wars. What is hopeful, though, is that an ancient playwright, the brightest of our own artistic community, and the audience all care, and hold aloft the solidarity of the human spirit.