Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Greek tragedy

Hecuba and the women of Troy confront Helen in Euripides' The Trojan Women at the Flea Theater, September 2016,

Review | Euripides’ The Trojan Women | Adapted by Ellen McLaughlin | Directed by Anne Cecelia Haney | Flea Theater

“Another war has ended.  When will the next begin?”  Poseidon    

The Trojan Women is a daring and astonishing a play — it sails against the waves of the expected on  all counts.

Written 2,400 years ago by a Greek, The Trojan Women takes the point of view of the enemy – the Trojans of Homer’s epic Iliad.  How is that for astonishing?  Written by a man, it takes the point of view of women – the defenseless mothers and wives who, with the defeat of Troy, are to be taken as war booty.  Bewildered and despairing in war’s cruel aftermath, the Trojan women question the sanity and the existence of the gods. They lose the future.  They confront a world with no purpose.   How is that – all that — for daring?

In this adaptation by Ellen McLaughlin, the women of Troy, sleeping fitfully, are soon awakened to hear which woman will be taken off by which Greek.  These highborn women lament their futures based on what slaves always do:  from concubines to floor scrubbers to chicken feeders to taking care of other women’s children.

Lindsley Howard as Cassandra in Euripides' The Trojan Women at The Flea Theater, September 2016.. Photo Allison Stock.

Casssandra the Seer using her intelligence — not divine inspiration — to predict a tragic future. Lindsley Howard as Cassandra. Photo Allison Stock.

But among the women Cassandra the Seer, who will go to Greece as  Agamemnon’s  concubine, predicts the future through a different prism:  that of inference based on evidence.  Ten years ago Agamemnon, tricking his wife Clytaemnestra, had murdered –i. e. “sacrificed” to the gods” — their daughter in order to raise favorable winds to sail to Troy.  Clearly, as Cassandra reasons, upon his return to Greece, Clytaemnstra will kill Agamenon in revenge, and kill the concubine he brings home – Cassandra.  Eurpides transforms Cassandra from a Seer traditionally dependent on divine inspiration to speak the future (though not believed), into one who tells the future through reasoning – through her human intelligence.  So much for the gods.  And there it is — Greek humanism.

Hecuba and the women of Troy confront Helen in Euripides' The Trojan Women at the Flea Theater, September 2016,

Hecuba confronts Helen. L-R Clea DeCrane, Rebeca Rad (Helen) Jenny Jarnagi, DeAnna Supplee (Hecuba) Chun Cho, Amanda Centeno. Photo Allison Stock

When the Trojan women turn viciously on Helen of Troy, the ultimate cause of all their grief, Euripides provides a comparably brilliant inversion of Helen’s character.  She, like Cassandra, becomes a fast-talking logician but – true to character and in ironic contrast to Cassandra — in her selfish interest.

In a usual pattern of conquest, the Greeks, of course, can’t afford to let live the son of Hector, the greatest fighter of the Greeks.  The irony of what his mother Andromache says, in the moments before the child is literally ripped from her arms, is breathtaking.

Phil Feldman as Talthybius and Casey Wortmann as Andromache in The Trojan Women at the Flea Theater. Photo Allison Stock.

Irony and tragedy. Phil Feldman as Talthybius and Casey Wortmann as Andromache with her child. Photo Allison Stock.

The current production at the Flea makes the play, that is a cascade of dramatically intense situations, action and ideas, seem static.  The directing depends on outdated ideas of what Greek tragedy should look like and sound like rather than on a direct confrontation with the text.  The set and costuming are burdened by the same unimaginative vision.   The Bats, the Flea’s young repertory actors who have been brilliant in every past production I’ve seen, are here, like the rest of the production, burdened by the obvious.

These actors speak, however, with clarity and projection, and if you go, you will hear every word – and that’s worth plenty!  This production can be experienced as a kind of dramatic reading, which is one very good way to get to know a play.  In fact, this adaptation was originally presented as a staged reading at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan in 1996, and some of that format may cling to it.  In her adaptation, McLaughlin simplified the play somewhat and — much to the purpose of a staged reading – has individuals speak lines drawn from the unified Chorus that Euripides wrote.  An iconic anti-war play, The Trojan Women has often been performed in response to specific wars, and this adaptation was developed in collaboration with the Balkan Theater Project in response to the Bosnian War, and refugees from that war performed the Classic Stage production.

The highest irony meets the highest tragedy in The Trojan Women.  Some reviewers of this production suggest there’s something inherently static about Euripides’ play – don’t believe it!  The play is a cascade of dramatically intense situations, actions and ideas as the productions by  Elizabeth Swados and Andrei Serban at La Mama fully demonstrated — among the most thrilling, dynamic, action-filled theater I’ve seen.

Ancient Greek playwrights were thought of as teachers, and in writing this play Euripides was critiquing his own people, the Athenians in attendance at the city dramatic festival, for their brutal depredations in the course of the Peloponnesian War.  That the lesson wasn’t learned, and has never been learned, is part of Euripides’ tragic awareness.  The play starts with the god Poseidon’s words, “Another war has ended.”  And then immediately, “When will the next begin?”

The Trojan Women plays at the Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca district through September 30,2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Iphigenia in Aulis from Euripides | Transadaptation by Anne Washburn | Classic Stage Company

… Lucidity …

Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis is a very great play and its force comes across in this production.  It leaves you shaken by the tragic, and elated.

The play’s force lies in the extraordinary power of Euripides’ mind, and the experience of seeing the play in this production by Classic Stage is mind-to-mind, his and yours.  What a privilege!

The Greek army is on its way to Troy when its ships are becalmed at Aulis.  For days on end no winds arise to fill the sails.  The army is frustrated, morale is low.  A seer reveals to Agamemnon, the Greek leader, that there will be no wind until Agamemnon sacrifices his own virginal daughter, Iphigenia – sacrifice as in slit her throat on altar — to appease the gods who are angry for their own reasons.  Goaded to fulfill the gods’ demand by his brother Menelaus (some nerve, it’s to bring Menelaus’ wife, Helen, back from Troy that Greeks have raised this army) Agamemnon sends for Iphigenia, using the ruse that he’s arranged her marriage with Achilles.

Agamemnon is agonized.  He has second thoughts and even seems near to changing his mind about the sacrifice until Fate moves his hand.  Faster than he expected, Iphigenia arrives in Aulis, and not alone but with her mother and his wife, Clytemnestra – of course they came quickly, they’re excited about the brilliant marriage.

The Greek army is excited too, but for the opposite, deadly reason:  the sacrificial virgin that will get them out of this desolate place has arrived — kill her and let’s get on to Troy!  Agamemnon, under pressure from his brother, the army, and his need to save face – his reasons are never totally clear — decides he must move forward with the sacrifice.  The ambiguities of Agamemnon’s motivation are part of the power of the play.

And Iphigenia is, yes, actually sacrificed by having her throat cut … Miracle of miracles! — the messenger reports that at the least moment an animal appeared for the sacrifice on the altar, and, as a vision, Iphigenia’s moved on to a better place!  (Or did she?  To know the answer to that, you have to read Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris.)  And the winds rise, the Greeks can sail.  Although Euripides died before completing the play, the ironies near the end are so powerful one feels he must have sketched them out.  It just takes a genius.

Rob Campbell, playing both Agamemnon and Achilles, is effective at creating the two distinct characters.  His Agamemnon is a centrist powerful male, affecting in conveying the intensity of his conflict.  His Achilles is a youthful tough guy with something of a “Brooklyn” accent that’s amusing, but fills out the character and is not distracting.  I really got a kick out of the way he did it.

Amber Gray is powerful as Clytemnestra whose emotional journey takes her from keen anticipation of the great marriage, to betrayal by her husband and terror and grief at the loss of her daughter.

Kristen Sieh is touching in her main role of Iphigenia, the tender girl just emerging from childhood who shows, in the course of the play, strength and purpose beyond that of any of the male “heroes,” though (reluctantly because she’s a fine performer) I found her visually unconvincing in looking too old for the part.

There is one disappointing aspect of this production — the Mardigras conception of the Chorus, supposed to represent the women of the region, played here by men and women.  They come on as if the play needs more energy, which it doesn’t, and they’re there to provide it – in colorful no-two-the-same everything-goes costumes and exaggerated flowery crowns, singing and dancing to a folk rock score with a lot of repetitive chant beat, composed by The Bengsons.

The chorus includes some fine singers and performers but their choreography by Sonya Taheh involves much circling the central stage with thumping feet and jagged, staccato motions and is repetitive.  The big loss is this:  Euripides’ poetry is largely unheard or turned fragmentary, re-arranged in jazzed up singing.

But Eurpides has weathered more through time than a mis-conceived Chorus.  The play leaves one stunned, breathless, and full of thought.  In spite of all the misadventures that this play has experienced – at Euripides’ death his son or nephew wrote the ending, and since then it’s undergone copying errors and emendations —  Euripides’ voice speaks to us.

No one else could tell us these things, things we must know.  As Anne Washburn, the transadapter writes, “… the mind which shines through it, in all of its terrible and heartbreaking lucidity, is Euripides.”  This is absolutely true.

This production is directed by Rachel Chavkin

Iphigenia in Aulis, a part of Classic Stage’s Greek Festival, plays at Classic Stage in Manhattan’s East Village through October 4, 2015.

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