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

Tag: war and women

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 | Ruined by Lynn Nottage | Directed by Kate Whoriskey | Manhattan Theatre Club

… This house is a home …

Ruined brings us to a cafe-bar-whorehouse in the Congo, an oasis in the midst of war between “government” and “rebels”.  As in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, on which this play is loosely based, it doesn’t matter who’s fighting — the effect on the little people struggling to survive is the same no matter which violent-prone combatants they encounter and will be the same no matter who wins.

Mama Nadi runs her place and her prostitutes with a firm hand.  She’s an unsentimental, bottom-line realist, using as whores the girls who are victims of sexual exploitation — mass and ongoing rapes — by soldiers, and then expelled by their kin as dishonored.  She offers them a place and a living.  Most of the time they keep in mind that they have no choice and are grateful — but thoughts of sweeter and more decent possibilities sometimes overwhelm them.  It’s a brutal story, and a real one in the sense of being based on the playwright’s interviews with victimized Congo women.

The play thus tells an important story, and has well written and acted confrontations between determined characters.

BUT … A problem is that Mama Nadi’s seems too nice a place.  In between the terrible things that happen in front of your eyes, you begin to feel that — like the girls — you could do worse than be here.  In Mother Courage everybody’s so hungry, the last time I saw it I came out hungry — oh for some warm soup!  Mama provides food and shelter, in critically short supply in Brecht’s play.  She and her girls, and the repeat visitors form a family, like the denizens of O’Neill’s bar in The Iceman Cometh.  Mama’s strength, conveyed with an all embracing vitality by Saidah Arrika Ekulona, is reassuring.  The set is lit by a golden gleam, reflecting off the piano-polished stage floor.  Everything’s in good repair — the ramshackle bar is painted over in pretty pastels.  The play takes up violence in terms of war, gender, and conventions of honor, but until violence directly intrudes, Mama’s place seems benign.  AIDS and other STD’s, in this play about prostitutes and soldiers in Africa, are never mentioned.  None of the girls is on drugs and none is alcoholic.  If war didn’t intrude here, what would happen to these girls anyway in ten years?  Ruined doesn’t ask that.

Thus, in spite of horrific events, the overall mood is so upbeat the play is ultimately sentimental.  In this it differs mightily from Journeys, recently produced in NYC and reviewed by me here, which like Ruined tells violence-plagued stories of women from around the world based on interviews, without the rosy glow.  Ruined lets the audience leave with one of Brecht’s “happy endings, nice and easy” — without the irony.  Brecht doesn’t paint in pastel colors.

Ruined, however, draws dramatic strength from its fully drawn and realized characters and fine cast.  The play shines a light on the worst aspects of humanity, on much in between, and also on the best, particularly in the character of Christian, a purveyor of goods who loves Mama Nadi, and whose poetic and persistent character is beautifully played by Russell G. Jones.  The three girls we follow (we never see hide nor hair of the seven or eight others who are said to be there which is a real flaw in this play) have distinct personalities and their stories are moving and emblematic:  Condola Rashad as the sensitive, maimed Sophie, Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Salina who must forget the past, and Cherise Booth who … don’t miss her dancing!

Ruined is easier to take than it should be  — perversely it turns out to be a pleasant evening of theater.

Ruined plays at NY City Center Stage 1 in midtown Manhattan, through April 19th, 2009.

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