Successfully translating, adapting and reviving a millennia-old theatrical text and presenting it to a contemporary audience are no small feats. Yet directors Jean-Bernard Bucky, professor of arts and theatre, and Erica Dankmeyer, visiting artist and lecturer, with the help of WilliamsTheatre, decided to undertake this sizeable task: They orchestrated a performance of The Trojan Women this weekend at the ’62 Center, giving this old classic very bold, sometimes refreshing touches. Written by the great Euripides in 415 B.C., the heart-wrenching tragedy follows the torments of the women of fallen Troy as they prepare to be dispersed throughout the kingdoms of Greece and forced into servitude.
The aspect of Greek theater that is most immediately apparent does, at first, come as a relative shock: You will not find much fast-paced dialogue or sensational action in the works of this Athenian playwright. Lengthy, frequent chanted choruses that explain and describe the action and previous events, as well as drawn-out, emotionally charged monologues, are trademarks of this dramatic genre. It takes some time for the audience to acclimatize to this presentation of plot that differs tremendously from more modern plays.
Nonetheless, the cast contained several quite excellent talents who truly carried these heavier and more ponderous moments and made them both gripping and effortless. Chief among of these was Linda White – a professional actress who has also previously performed at the College – returning to the ’62 Center to reprise her role as Hecuba, queen to the slain king of Troy, Priam, and mother to heroes and heroines such as Hector and Polyxena. As the central character, she leads this anguished lament by decrying the fall of her beloved city and the death of her many offspring. White produced a real tour-de-force, embodying to perfection a caring, grieving mother; her suffering was painfully real. Tess McHugh ’11 also gave a stand-out portrayal of Cassandra, bringing to life this tragically doomed, enthralled prophetess as she flayed about, ceaselessly spewing her often incomprehensible but always perfectly clairvoyant foresights. Robin Crigler ’14, as both Poseidon and Menelaus, had a commanding presence on stage.
Despite these extremely solid performances, it still seemed that the production was dragged down by some rather odd choices in representation. The set placed us in an arid, rocky environment, in which the invading Greeks were surrogated by turbaned, vaguely Middle-Eastern looking soldiers, whereas the women were swathed in some decidedly ancient-looking tattered rags. In addition, whilst the men were given rifles and a massive steel girder protruded out of the stage, the gods were made to seem very “Greek,” echoes of the monolithic Archaic statues of antiquity. Still on the subject of the gods, Athena, the virgin goddess and proud warrior, was transfigured into a sensual, seductive temptress, becoming more of an Aphrodite than anything else. All of these bizarre elements contributed to confuse the viewer both spatially and temporally.
More importantly, a critical issue when dealing with Greek theater is the decision of how to depict the gods that have very tangible roles in the script: First, how much of this very rich and important mythology are you going to portray, and second, whether the gods are going to be treated more as abstract concepts or as directly involved personae with a genuine sense of agency. These questions seemed to remain unaddressed, and we are left slightly perplexed as to how to interpret this.
On a brighter note, the directors displayed some very consequential efforts in the re-imagination of the Greek tragic genre: The addition of fairly well-choreographed dance routines during choruses and frequent musical backdrops added significantly to our involvement in the play itself, despite robbing certain scenes of some measure of gravity and solemn sadness. Turning this “dated” piece into a musical of sorts genuinely energized the overall experience, which might otherwise have been a somewhat alienating experience for non-classicists such as myself. It is true that the variety of elements introduced created a certain sense of hysteria and unrest, but surely this is something a playwright would encourage in a work about loss, grief and war.
After all, The Trojan Women speaks to everyone, beyond the barriers of era or culture, of the ravages of war and the sorrow it breeds. In that sense, this adaptation was quite potent: It gave us, for the better part of two hours, a gripping portrait of desolation after a conflict, underlining both the futility of the fighting and the disastrous consequences it brings. Helen is not just a pretty girl in Ancient Greece: She is every madness, every single unbridled passion or unchecked impulse that has led man down the path to his own, senseless destruction. It is for this reason that Euripides’ words will continue to speak to us, no matter how many years or stylistic differences separate us from the time of his writing.