“Make sense who may.”
—Samuel Beckett, from What? Where?
About ten minutes before Thursday night’s Williamstheatre production of The Trojan Women ended, two Williams students, seated towards the back of the MainStage of the Adams Memorial Theatre, apparently had had enough avant-garde theatre and made a break for the exit. Fortunately, the production was able to catch them in the act: as they were creeping up the aisle, Talthybius, played by Christopher Boucher ’03, dressed in black with a trunk tied to his back, blocked the aisle to confront Christine Cheon’s Hecuba, looming shadowy on stage. One student was able to slide past the glaring lights, maintaining clumsy anonymity, but the other was forced by decorum to sheepishly sit down, in a stupor, grinning and blushing like a stunned but oblivious child. After the scene was over, he finally managed (sigh of relief) to “sneak” out.
It’s too bad for them—they left just before the most thrilling, visceral moment I’ve experienced at a Williams production, a stirring, cacophonous symphony of gibberish in which the Trojan Women all simultaneously try to say their personal goodbyes to Troy, only to be silenced by a furious game of Greek paddy-cake between the play’s external chorus of two Little Girls, played by Dana Lea Nelson ’02 and Emily Stone Glenn ’03.
This particular production of Euripides’ classic tragedy, guest-directed by the Suzuki-trained actor James Bond (yup…his risky projects generally shake and stir), is a collaboration in the purest sense. The actors, along with the set, lighting and sound designers, use the text of The Trojan Women as a springboard for the more personal expressions of distant memory, womanhood, childhood and sex. The “final” product (a collaboration such as this, during which the nature of rehearsal may change from one night to the next, will always, in one way or another, play like a work in progress) is a feverish 75-minute poem of dance, text and color—a gutsy experiment, especially for a Williams audience.
From the beginning, The Trojan Women seizes the audience’s attention with provocative, discordant imagery. The gorgeous first fourth of the play is an extended movement routine that relies, as does a ballet, on music. Only occasionally is it interrupted by the menacing Little Girls, or by a slickly dressed talk-show reincarnation of Poseidon, played with an eerie assurance by Foster Cronin ’03. Microphone in hand, he gets in the actors’ faces to ask them such simple, airy questions as, “What is it like to die?” or “What do you want to be remembered as when you die?” But they keep moving on in a soft, routine-looking dance to far-off French music. Though the actors rarely achieve a satisfying, rhythmic unison with them, these dances are the most memorable routines of the play, slow and mannered and acutely disturbing.
The often eclectic sound design, by Bond and friend Natacha Kantor (she also did the fluid, Pina Bausch-esque choreography), alternates between accommodating the actors and pushing them along—appropriate for a show in which design plays almost as big a role as the living, breathing actors do. Senior Nancy Moeur’s wispy, metallic playground-like set, accented by a pale white floor, looks fragile, under construction—and then, wonderfully, the actors climb all over it. If it weren’t for a couple of awkward polar-ice-chunk column fragments downstage (the visual connection to Greek heritage seems a bit heavy and stubborn), the perfect illustration of a “working theatre” would have been realized. The costumes, conceived by a Williams design class calling themselves “eight,” are clean and bleak, though sometimes ill-fitted (the Little Girls, for instance, do not look like little girls).
And then there were the lights. Achieved by visiting designer Brian Scott, they constantly work on the audience—setting or forcing moods, undercutting the emotions of the actors—to fill us, ultimately, with awe. If there had been no actors, no text, no sound, the lights would still have been worth a viewing. They go far and take us far.
Strangely enough, however, what doesn’t work about The Trojan Women is its resistance to go even further. The middle half of the production, in which most of the traditional “scenes” of The Trojan Women are played out, is largely slow and incomprehensible (in an unintentional way)—perhaps the play would have worked better (“worked” in the sense that it stirs an audience, which is what a piece like this aims to do) if there had been no text at all. The very competent, mostly freshman cast seems genuine in their personal recountings (though, ironically, much of the content of their memories and ruminations seem clichÃ©d and simplistic), but when Richmond Lattimore’s translation is recited, the play falls flat. Many of the actors seem to realize that what they are saying is “important” but not much more.
Christine Cheon, playing the play’s focal character Hecuba, has a striking voice but exhausts it with far too much grave, beleaguered intensity—she speaks to the audience rather than to the characters on stage, proclaiming rather than acting. Indeed, very few text-based scenes in The Trojan Women seem like actual interchanges between characters, but rather stylized “universal” readings of the text. The focus and commitment of the cast is remarkable, but they at times seem to lose sight of exactly what they are focusing so hard on.
However, a few text-driven scenes and characters still stick in the gut. The rape and murder of Polyxena (played with cherubic shyness by Kari Sutherland ’02), executed with the gesture of four black-clad and goggled apocalyptic men each pouring a glass of red wine on her white dress, is quietly simple and shocking. A strategic dance between Menelaus (Michael Izquierdo ’00) and Helena (Marina Melka) is, because of Izquierdo’s sexual deliberateness and Melka’s balletic fluidity and jarring French accent, lavishly exotic. The intensity of Zelle Bonney ’00, playing Athene, is refreshingly understated—she commands as much attention sitting straight in a chair as she does dancing, doing both with extraordinary precision. Alicia Andrews ’03 also strikes a nerve, playing a haggard, desperate Andromache, pleading for mercy on her baby.
What sense can be made of this Trojan Women? To be honest, I can’t easily figure an overarching theme—perhaps it’s about the loss of childhood in a cruel world that demands it; perhaps it’s about the way men treat women as children, as underdeveloped fledglings of society. Or the answer may lie in Bond’s Director’s Notes: “What is the experience of waiting? What do you do when your experience, your culture is taken away? Perhaps you sing or dance. Perhaps you tell stories. Perhaps you mourn.”