Feminist studies has long had a crush on Euripides. The purported champion of women’s rights in Ancient Greece earned his reputation for his man-hating Medea, but his alleged soft spot for the weaker sex owes to a lesser-known play about an even more overlooked subset of the Aegean population: the women of Troy. If ever Greek patriarchy feigned interest in the female condition, Euripides significantly one-upped his brothers by empathizing with the real losers of the Trojan War: those wives and mothers who were widowed, raped, and saw their children murdered before being made the slaves and concubines of the victorious Greek army. In Trojan Women (415 BCE), he even gives Helen of Troy a chance to defend herself against Greek opinion that saw her as the epitome of female seduction and treachery. Whatever may have been Euripides’ actual feelings regarding the opposite sex, his play makes a certain case for seeing all women as the sum of their parts rather than focusing on just a few, more physical ones.
In SITI Company’s production of Trojan Women (After Euripides) currently at BAM’s Harvey Theater, Euripides’ feminist sympathies become a muted call to arms for women today. Director Anne Bogart and playwright Jocelyn Clarke have imagined a Troy inhabited by contemporary female tropes, if not role models: matriarchal rulers, self-sacrificing grandmothers, baby-toting new mothers, supermodels, hysterics…. And while Hecuba, Andromache, Helen, and Kassandra are queens and princesses, their situation is all the more terrible for their almost total powerlessness. Only Helen, played by the statuesque Katherine Crockett, succeeds in carving out some breathing room for herself by working her considerable charms on a still besotted Menelaus. Even from the opening image of Hecuba (played with masterful control and depth by Ellen Lauren), who lies face down in the dirt of her ruined city, it is clear that these women are in a position of complete submission, to the gods and their fates, or more truthfully, to the armies of men.
But defeatism never raised a stirring war cry, and only less so in the age of female agency, so while Bogart and Clarke’s adaptation of Euripides must inevitably plow the field of gender studies, their manner of going about it may surprise at times. Hecuba exhorts herself in distinctly modern tones of frustration and self-loathing to “get off the ground” and get on with her life. Andromache (Makela Spielman) wears her baby sling carrier like a shield so that it’s hard to appreciate the woman behind the infant (although Hector’s widow proves far more resourceful here than as Euripides’ sacrificial lamb).
The male characters are deliberately, almost deliciously, weak and ineffectual: either too small for their legendary stature, in the case of Gian-Murray Gianino’s Odysseus; too much the impresario to be taken seriously (J. Ed Araiza’s Menelaus is a blast of fresh air in the otherwise grim proceedings); or more big bear than paratrooper (Leon Ingulsrud’s Envoy). Dressed in black uniforms of different kinds and following military orders that suit their different ranks, they make a stark contrast to the women’s white radiance and higher moral ground.
Besides its preoccupation with the woman question, Euripides’ play is a famous bore among Greek tragedies in that it lacks the dramatic structure of tragedy itself. In plain terms, nothing happens. But SITI’s Trojan Women opens up an interesting discursive space in that regard: If rising action is male, its absence is indeed where women reside here, and powerfully so. In an otherwise compelling production that embraces the ancient woman’s status in sacred ritual, embodied by Kassandra (Akiko Aizawa), through chant and a physical language of suffering, and led by arresting performances in the female roles, the conclusion seems hackneyed: Women are the guardians of what is truly important—love, life and family—against strife and men’s desire. Nevertheless, Hecuba’s unerring faith in a better day is SITI’s fighting contribution to the gender conversation.