November 6, 2009—February 21, 2010
Directed by Frédérique Michel
Production Design by Charles A. Duncombe
Cast: Maria Christina Benthall, June Carryl, Troy Dunn, David E. Frank, Michael Galvin, Jules Hartley, Dave Mack, Cynthia Mance, Alisha Nichols, Mariko Oka, Amelia Rose, Kenneth Rudnicki, Crystal Sershen, Garth Whitten, Reha Zamani
Friday, November 13, 2009
By David C. Nichols
A high level of invention suffuses “The Trojan Women” at City Garage. Deconstructing Euripides’ classic tragedy into a multifarious current-day collage, adaptor-designer Charles Duncombe and director Frederíque Michel pull few punches in the wake of burning Illium.
The geopolitical realities in Duncombe’s freewheeling text range from harrowing statistics of recent genocides to sardonic swipes at our blog-infested society. Darfur, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, overpopulation, climate change and more punctuate the same gender positions that have driven this saga since its Peloponnesian War premiere.
Hecuba (June Carryl, magnificently composed) suggests a traditional African queen, clothed at the outset by title mourners whose burkas are but one of costumer Josephine Poinsot’s inspirations. Cassandra (Mariko Oka) devolves from culture vulture to a naked, feral creature of website contours. Andromache (the touching Amelia Rose) turns the society trophy wife into a figure of post-millennial pathos, rending against Troy Dunn’s quietly insidious Greek envoy.
And when an assured Alicia Nichols turns up as Helen of Troy, here a Britney Spears clone with nude dancing boys and hip attitude, her face-off with Michael Galvin’s intense, Billy Connolly-flavored Menelaus crystallizes the enterprise. Dave Mack’s empathetic diplomat, Crystal Sershen’s understated Hermione and Cynthia Mance’s entertainment reporter are among the other standouts in a marvelous ensemble effort.
Dividing focus between the keening women and the marauding men, Duncombe gets a slew of modern context in (Euripides is understandably absent from the credits). The approach risks overload, some things unnecessarily explained, and director Michel occasionally struggles to keep the tone consistent. Still, if the aim is to yank “Trojan Women” into our consciousness, this company benchmark, though overstuffed, is a triumph.
LA Weekly – GO!
Thursday, November 12, 2009
By Steven Leigh Morris
In his adaptation of the ancient Greek tragedy (So freely swiped from the original that Euripides’ byline doesn’t appear on the program), Charles Duncombe takes a macroscopic, brutal and unrelenting look at the end of the world. Genocide in Rwanda and Sierra Leone, unsustainable population growth and climate change carry the day, and the play, with excursions into a theme that’s punctuated Duncombe’s earlier adaptations of texts by Sophocles and Heiner Müller: the relationship between gender and power.
Scenes depicting physical mutilation and rape in war zones – choreographed by director Frederique Michel – contain an excruciating authenticity, even in the abstract. Michel undercuts this harrowing tone by incorporating elements of farce in other scenes. One is a gem of understatement and humor: The reunion of fluttery Helen of Troy (Alisha Nichols, attired like a dancer in a strip club, and employing all those powers of manipulation) with the Greek king Menelaus (stoic, furious Michael Galvin) from whom she fled and started this bloody mess (the Trojan War, that is).
This is where the adaptation and direction congeal and captivate. This is still very much a work-in-progress, conceived for all the right reasons. As is, the directorial tones wobble like a top, and the adaptation contains far too much explication. The evening also reveals why theater matters, and how this kind of work wouldn’t stand a chance in any other medium. It’s too smart and too passionate to dismiss.
LA Weekly: Theater Feature
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Rotten Families: The Trojan Women and Tree, and what we mean to each other
By Steven Leigh Morris
Euripides’ The Trojan Women, the most famous in a trilogy of dramas written about the Trojan War, features the saga of the Trojan horse — the famous trick played out in Troy, when the Greeks gifted the Trojans a large, wooden horse during the Peloponnesian War. It’s hard to build trust after something like that, no matter how progressive one’s politics. The play is a post-traumatic wail by Troy’s surviving royal women, whose husbands and sons have been butchered, and who have now been sold into slavery to various Greek kings.
The Trojan Women is performed frequently around the world, which isn’t bad for a dour lament first produced in 415 B.C. Yet when Euripides dutifully entered his trilogy into the Dionysus Festival, it went nowhere. First prize was taken by a playwright named Xenocles, whom almost nobody has heard of since. That should tell you all you need to know about playwriting competitions and new-play festivals.
In his new adaptation of The Trojan Women, Charles Duncombe has spun it into a macroscopic view of human barbarity, depicting scenes of rape and genocide from Rwanda and Sierra Leone (which director Frederique Michel stages as a balletic dance of death), with running news commentary by an actor on the side (Cynthia Mance), who keeps asking the bludgeoned and dismembered how they feel. So even in the depiction of unbearable human brutality, Duncombe adds cutting shards of satire, aimed at the way we receive the news — something Euripides steered away from. (Then again, Euripides didn’t have to contend with FOX News or CNN.)
Early in the production, a Dummy and a Ventriloquist (David E. Frank and Michael Galvin) give a slapstick explanation of the Trojan War, and why nobody cares because it was so long ago, and is therefore irrelevant to our lives. This may be a preemptive rebuttal to those who question why such a dark play should be put on, but if the production is as good as this one often gets, the scene is largely beside the point.
When the story settles in on Hecuba, Queen of Troy (June Carryl), who portrays her fallen woman as an emblem of pained and stoic dignity, and her coterie of female Trojan royalty (Mariko Oka, Crystal Sershen, Cynthia Mance, Maria Christina Benthall, Reha Zemani and Amelia Rose) we slide into the literary-liturgical world of a theatrical prayer. Poor Andromache (Rose), the deranged wife of slain Hector, doesn’t comprehend the dire ramifications of her surrendering her infant boy, who provides her only purpose in life, to Archaean envoy Talthybius (Troy Dunn). This is a scene plucked from Euripides, and it’s as powerful now as it’s been through the ages, thanks in large part to Rose’s flittering, bewildered, widowed queen, inflated with self-importance. You’d want to slap her for her bloated and unearned sense of entitlement were she not clutching the handle of the insane asylum’s door.
It’s the kind of scene that needs no explanation, but Duncombe has added plenty of that as well — not about Andromoche in particular but about the state of the world in general. Frequently, such explications are pedantic and a disservice to Duncombe’s many wonderful scenes that play themselves out between the lines. His model may be Bertolt Brecht, who loves to explain and ruminate upon his parables. But this is no parable; it’s an epic. And what this is about is as clear as the black smoke of war.
The play’s strongest scene concerns Helen of Troy (Alisha Nichols, like a generic blond stripper, pouty lips, playing dumb but rat-smart), returning to her furious husband, Menelaus (Galvin at his best — a seething volcano of curses and spite), whom she abandoned for Paris, thereby provoking the brother of her cuckolded husband to launch 1,000 ships, and the decades-long war.
She’s now home, eyes-a-flutter, apologizing. Does Menelaus take the bait? He just said he wanted her torn apart by tanks in a slow and agonizing death. But sex toys like Helen have their power, too. This may be the point of Michel’s use of nudity throughout the production.
In A Mabou Mines’ Dollhouse, director Lee Breuer had Maude Phillips’ Nora strip off in his adaptation of Ibsen’s anthem to feminism, but she also removed a flowing wig, so that, in the flesh, she was bald. That image of a woman finding herself in a world of masquerade balls was nakedness rather than nudity.
For her Trojan Women, Michel has her women costumed in froufrou dresses and heels, and one hand gloved to the elbow. When lithe Mariko Oka strips down to everything but the glove and little white boots, it’s an image of both defiance and erotic seduction in the same gesture, of sexual vulnerability. Whether that’s an also an image of power is a question laced with ambiguity. There’s no question, however, that the flesh keeps everyone paying attention. Perhaps this dovetails into Duncombe’s parody of TV news, and of a voyeuristic culture imploding before our eyes.
With all its ambiguities and the sometimes wobbly tones, this admirable production demands respect. It’s a work-in-progress worth investigating.
Julie Hébert’s family dramaTree, set in Chicago’s South Side around 2000, tells the story of a now demented African-American woman named Jessalyn Price (Sloan Robinson), who lives mostly upstairs, and is cared for by her world-wearied son, Leo (Chuma Gault).
If Duncombe goes overboard with political explications of his macroscopic view, Hébert commits the inverse, having Jessalyn spout oblique lyrical fragments from her withering recollections, imposed upon what’s really a microscopic view of one family, and one long-ago love affair. Through the microscope, however, you can see the larger patterns of the society that shaped their lives, and ours. It too is a portrait of warring clans and their brittle attempts at reconciliation and acceptance.
Into the household wanders a Caucasian interloper from Louisiana, named Didi (Jacquelyn Wright), bereft over the recent death of her father and determined to learn the truth of a possible affair he had with the now-demented woman upstairs. Turns out Leo and Didi may even be siblings. Uh-oh.
And so begins not only a very testy relationship between the family in Chicago, including Leo’s sweet-smart daughter JJ (nicely played by Tessa Thompson), but also gender-ambiguous, smarty-pants Didi.
Another family drama about unearthing secrets? This could be an exercise in tedium, were it played out the way it usually is, with people suddenly confessing with melodramatic flourish to past sins, for no particular reason other than to expiate their own guilt, and the playwright’s tug on the puppet strings.
Not so here. Hébert structures her play as an anthopological dig. When old and difficult truths emerge, they do so from the exigencies of empirical evidence — correspondences that finally emerge, as well as the persistence of Didi, a truth-seeker whose curiosity borders on the belligerent. That’s probably what it takes to get to the heart of anything.
Hébert is a lovely writer, who avoids propelling her drama with glib Gothic parodies, a technique bountifully employed in Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County. The friction here comes from personalities, not presumptions. The play finds its stride through people clashing, even gently, and their conflicting needs. When Jessalyn rambles on, especially near the play’s start, and despite Robinson’s meticulous and endearing performance, under Jessica Kubzansky’s direction, the forced poeticism has the texture of jam on top of honey.