There are few theatrical challenges more daunting than finding a way to convincingly put Greek tragedy on the modern stage. It’s not just the densely poetic language or the tales of long-ago Athens and Troy. It’s, mostly, the chorus. Modern directors have long struggled to find a compelling, contemporary physical vocabulary for the assembly of naysayers, ode-singers, and eggers-on appearing in almost every drama from the period — a group that’s essential to the plays’ brutal, bloody climaxes, but not usually part of them.
So it’s no wonder that staging Euripides’ The Trojan Women — a play that’s almost entirely chorus — would be a tall order. Or that Anne Cecelia Haney’s production of Ellen McLaughlin’s translation, now playing at the Flea, doesn’t quite manage to bring the horrors of the Trojan War any closer to us. Performed by the Flea’s resident acting company, the Bats, this take on Greek tragedy contains moments of thoughtful, perceptive performance but, as a whole, founders on the shoals of classical-drama cliché.
Among Greek tragedies, The Trojan Women is unusual: both for its near-absence of dramatic action — it instead explores the aftermath of violence — and for its foregrounding of Trojan, rather than Greek, characters. The play unfolds on the rubble-strewn shores of Troy, in the wake of the infamous wooden-horse catastrophe, as the victorious Greeks prepare to sail homewards with the women of Troy in tow. The women mourn their husbands and sons, prepare for a life of servitude and violence, and, eventually, watch their city go up in flames. There are flashes of drama: Hecuba (DeAnna Supplee), the Trojan queen, confronts Helen (Rebeca Rad) over the destruction wreaked in
Helen’s name. Hector’s wife, Andromache (Casey Wortmann), tries desperately to save her infant son from being murdered by the departing Greek soldiers. Mostly, though, the play is elegy, not action.
McLaughlin’s original adaptation was developed in 1995, for a staged reading performed by refugees of the Bosnian War — a moment when the Trojans’ mourning must have seemed especially prescient. It’s a lovely version of the text, brimming with evocative imagery. But Haney struggles to bring the Trojans’ story to life. Performers, swaddled in toga-and-sackcloth costumes — Greek-tragedy boilerplate — deliver choral text in tones that suggest self consciousness about classical poetry, rather than moment-by-moment emotion. There are wistfully harmonious songs, and swoopy ensemble choreography, perhaps intended to lend formal dimensions to the event, but both elements are overly recognizable, and the staging feels too familiar to shock us into connecting with the Trojans’ plight. When the doomed prophet Cassandra (Lindsley Howard), smeared in black face-paint and girded with twigs, shows up to foretell more devastation, rumbling, overblown sound effects turn the scene positively Halloween-y.
Occasionally, the young performers from the Bats — members of one of the few ongoing, rotating resident acting
companies in the city — find ways to ignite feeling. In particular, Supplee, as Hecuba, brings life to her character’s ruin, savaging the persistently self-absorbed Helen, who insists that none of the unfolding horror has been her fault.
Despite the challenges, I’d readily root for more productions of The Trojan Women, which, in our current world of cyclical, endless conflict, isn’t likely to feel irrelevant anytime soon. As the god Poseidon notes,
in the play’s prologue, “Another war has ended. When will the next begin?”
The Trojan Women
Adapted by Ellen McLaughlin
The Flea Theater
41 White Street
Through September 26