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When Euripides debuted his Trojan Women at the Dionysian festival of 415 B.C., the play opened with an aloof conversation between Athena and Poseidon regarding how the Greeks ought to be punished for the rape of Cassandra. But in Alfred Preisser’s adaptation, no gods appear. A rather bloodthirsty 10-year-old Trojan begins the play instead. She looks at the wreckage surrounding her and, in her child’s voice, burbles, “I don’t think I’ll ever laugh again/Unless I saw one of these men’s throat cut/I probably would laugh at that.”
Perhaps severed jugulars make you chuckle as well. If not, Preisser, a co-founder of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, doesn’t offer much in the way of comedy. As though he fears the ancient horrors of the original might prove insufficiently upsetting, Preisser has arrayed his text with accounts of the uncivil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Amid the rape of Cassandra, the enslavement of Andromache, and the crushing of the baby Astyanax, we hear of soldiers committing slaughter via machetes, guns, and gasoline. “They marched us up a hill. There were two men at the top of it and they started hacking off our arms,” begins a typical speech.
Preisser follows the example of Sartre,
who thrust the ravages of colonialism into his version, and Charles L. Mee, who added the testimony of holocaust survivors to his Trojan Women 2.0. Preisser’s efforts to heighten and contemporize the drama somewhat succeed, though they’re undercut by certain directoral choices. He stages the action behind a chain-link fence, which prevents the audience from really seeing the faces of the women, rendering their performances more generic or anonymous than they ought to be. And while both Troy Hourie’s setting, which exploits the architecture of the grand Gatehouse theater, and Kimberly Glennon’s silky costumes are striking, they, too, lend the proceedings an air of the placeless and timeless. This makes it easier to separate ourselves from the onstage atrocities. Preisser seems to want us to feel culpable—some lines clearly indict the U.S.—but the action plays out as if at a distance.
Typical of a Classical Theatre of Harlem show, the actors turn in impressive, if somewhat unnuanced, performances. Ty Jones renders Menelaus as younger, meaner, and, well, hotter than is usual, while Zainab Jah plays a sinuous Helen. Lizan Mitchell gives a regal turn as Hecuba, and Michael Early makes an oleaginous Talthybius: “I am essentially an educated and, I think, fair-minded man. Member of the Whiffenpoof Society in my senior year,” he says, confirming our long-held suspicion that a cappella singers are capable of great and terrible evil.