With more songs, chants, and dirges than any other extant Greek tragedy, Euripides’ Trojan Women is less a play than an impassioned cry against violence. Though the play centers on the fate of Hecuba, the dethroned queen of Troy, it’s one of the playwright’s most fervent anti-war tragedies, both a compassionate depiction of war’s suffering victims and a warning to victors against hubristic triumphalism. Classical Theater of Harlem’s updated revival only focuses on the emotional fallout—it’s all outrage, with little dramatic development or complexity.
Director and adapter Alfred Preisser expands on Euripides’ already extensive choral odes with firsthand testimonies of atrocities committed in Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Iraq. His actors prove adept at evoking the horrors that mark these conflicts, but Preisser squanders their talents: The cumulative effect of their characters’ harrowing narratives is more desensitizing than disturbing.
Even in rags, Lizan Mitchell makes a regal Hecuba, and Rain Jack is particularly chilling as the 10-year-old Asyntanax, born on the first day of the Trojan War. But because Preisser never gives the defeated Trojans the chance to reveal multilayered characters, it is the perpetrators of barbarity who come across as most compelling. Ron Simons as the Greek messenger Talthybius and Ty Jones as Mene-laus portray conquerors who are haunted by the degradation of their captured enemies. Given the chance, Mitchell and her cohorts could surely have given us portraits of equal depth were not Preisser’s adaptation preoccupied with emphasizing the hideousness of their plight. Preisser condemns those who know that massacres are “definitely happening . . . but somewhere else,” and yet in his insistence on depicting those atrocities en masse he has made them seem more distant than ever.