nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 13, 2006
2,400 intervening years of history have not made Hecuba any less necessary than it was when Euripides first wrote it: its message, decrying the seemingly endless cycles of attack and revenge that we call war, remains as unheeded today as it was then. The Pearl Theatre Company's production, using a new translation by Janet Lembke and Kenneth J. Reckford, takes us right to the core of the matter: that men (and women too, sometimes) seem incapable of resisting the call to arms; that no matter how much poets and pacifists rail against it, there remains something fundamental inside us humans—call it honor or call it folly—that gets tugged inexorably toward battle. In Hecuba we see, over and over, scenes where people lament and wail about warfare's cruelty and destruction; and then we see the same people fail to prevent more of the same from happening. Such is the terrible reality of the situation, illuminated in Shepard Sobel's bleak, stark staging, and pointing toward a single unanswerable question that stares back at us from the stage like a brutal, silent scream: will humanity ever learn this lesson?
Hecuba takes place at the end of the Trojan War. The victorious Greeks, led by their king, Agamemnon, and the great soldier Odysseus, have destroyed the city of Troy and are returning home with the women of Troy enslaved as their spoils. The chief prize is Hecuba, once queen of Troy, now reduced to wearing rags and living among her former subjects in the army's tents. All are stranded, for the moment, on the shores of Thrace, waiting for the winds to return and allow the Greeks to set sail. Here, Hecuba's tragedies pile up and a horrible revenge is wrought.
First comes news that the Greeks have determined to sacrifice Hecuba's daughter, Polyxena, to the gods. Though she begs both Odysseus and Agamemnon to halt this act that she sees as murderous, the execution takes place; Talthybius, a messenger, relates the event to the horrified mother, in extreme graphic detail.
Right on the heels of this comes word that Polydorus, the youngest son of Hecuba and her husband Priam—who was sent away before the Trojan War to live with their ally King Polymestor of Trace—has also been murdered: his body has washed up on the shore, found there by one of Hecuba's attendants, killed for the substantial quantities of gold that his parents sent with him to his (supposed) refuge.
And now Hecuba can take no more. She begs Agamemnon to let her have revenge, which she calls justice and which he conveniently refutes any knowledge of. What she does to Polymestor makes for one of the more horrific climaxes to a Greek tragedy—right up there with Medea, in fact. Knowing that on some level Polymestor "deserves" what he gets here, and also that Agamemnon is about to come in for punishment of his own at the hands of his vengeful wife Clytemnestra—knowing all of this somehow nevertheless doesn't make it feel particularly "right." I longed, instead, for the rule of order and law that comes at the end of the story of the House of Atreus (at the uplifting conclusion of Aeschylus's Oresteia, for example). But at the end of Hecuba such a mark of authentic civilization seems very far off indeed. Where does our own so-called civilized society fall on such a spectrum?
Sobel's production is riveting. Joanne Camp's Hecuba is its powerful center, an avenging angel, to be sure, but one possessed of a rather scary nobility: her conviction in her own absolute authority and entitlement is unwavering and relentless. Surrounding her are three mostly silent attendents (Rocelyn Halili, Kelli Holsopple, and Susan Hunt) and a chorus of Trojan captive women (Rachel Botchan, Vinie Burrows, and Carol Schultz) who bear witness but never challenge Hecuba or anyone else who's willing to assume command. Carolyn Ratteray, as both Polyxena and the ghost of Polydorus, offers the contrast of pure innocence, as startling here as the white robes that she wears.
The men opposing them are all masked in this production, suggesting the duplicity that all of them demonstrate in their self-serving actions. Agamemnon and Odysseus are both portrayed by John Livingstone Rolle, the soldier as slave to the "will" of his people and the king as manipulator non-pareil. The messenger and the Thracian king are both played by Dominic Cuskern, who delivers a truly great performance whose highlights are two remarkable monologues about the catastrophic results of taking an eye for an eye.
The masks, which are most effective, are designed by James Seffens (with mask consultant Jim Calder). Evocative costumes are by Devon Painter, sound and music by Jane Shaw, lighting by Stephen Petrilli, and a spare, classically-styled set by Susan Zeeman Rogers provide an appropriate look and feel to this production that matches Sobel's ritualized direction. This is a place where catharsis can happen. Will we listen to what our souls tell us when it does?