06 December 2016

The Trojan Women, by Euripides (adapted by Gwendolyn MacEwen)

Euripides’ The Trojan Women is widely regarded as one of the greatest anti-war plays of all time, and it seems unfortunately timely today. With wars raging in the Middle East, and with the largest refugee crisis since WWII is Syria, Euripides’ lamentation reaches across the millennia to admonish us to this day. This transhistorical element is particularly evident in Gwendolyn MacEwen’s adaptation of the ancient play, as performed by the WVU Theatre production under the direction of Jay Malarcher.

The basic story in Euripides’ play focuses on the women who survived the destruction of Troy as they wait to be divided amongst the Greeks and sent to slavery. The protagonist is Hekabe (or Hecuba), former queen of the now dead city. The plot moves through Hekabe’s interactions with a set of other characters: Kassandra, her mad prophet daughter, Andromakhe, wife of her dead son Hektor, and Helene and Menelaos, the king of Sparta and the queen who abandoned him and launched the Trojan War.

MacEwen keeps this basic structure, but imports a lot of themes and ideas more representative of the 1970s (this adaptation was first performed in 1978) than of Euripides’ fifth century BCE Athens. For instance, virtually every character in this version voices doubts about the existence of the gods, which would have been highly problematic at the Greek religious festival where The Trojan Women was originally performed. Another change is that Euripides’ Hekabe is a frail old woman struggling against her physical infirmity, whereas MacEwen’s Hecuba seems robust and resilient (despite claiming to be weak and skinny).

In the WVU production, this stronger more combative Hecuba was played by Madeline Hintz, who commanded the stage and physically confronted not only the Greeks but the other Trojan women—Cassandra (played by Rachel Moore) and Andromache (played by Cassandra Hackbart). MacEwen’s adaptation is more conflict centered than Euripides, so Hecuba comes into conflict with both her daughter and her daughter-in-law, admonishing them for their reactions to captivity with the Greeks: a sexualized prophecy of doom and utter despair respectively. The relationships between Hintz, Moore, and Hackbart were complex and intriguing, showing the dynamic tension between these women. As Moore played Cassandra’s insane flirtatiousness, Hintz looked on in disgust and shame, but when Moore had gone there was a visible softening in Hintz. Similarly, as Hintz denounced Hackbart’s despair over the death of Hector, but when the Greeks took Asthyanax (Eben Mugrage) for execution, Hintz wrapped the weeping Hackbart in her arms in an iconic moment of solidarity.

The performances by all of the named characters were very strong, but in The Trojan Women the Chorus is a crucial group. Performed by nine women—Abigail Cyphert, Brianna Bowers, Briana Gause, Deja Elliott, Elise Rucker, Katelyn Fauss, Monica Hanigan, Native Kesecker, and Taylor Morgan—the Chorus reminds us simply by their presence that while the great begin wars and conflicts, everyone suffers in them. The Chorus is a democratic role, which in this play takes on particular importance. The Chorus for WVU was particularly interesting because their performance included an almost continual miming of weaving—the symbolism of which could be explored at much greater length than I am willing to allot it in this review. However, some implications or associations would include: the Fates weaving the thread of destiny (which was an important idea in Greek myth), the weaving of an historical narrative, the interwoven nature of choral poetics (the call and response pattern of the Euripidean strophe-antistrophe, or the much more fragmented conversations style of MacEwen’s Chrous), or the preservation of a handicraft skill representative of Trojan culture. The Chorus even says at one point, “I will continue to weave, but on someone else’s loom.” And so the notion of weaving is a complex and multifaceted performance choice, which also laid the basis for the Choral dances.

Another unique performance choice made for this production was to disembody the voice of Poseidon, who opens the show, and utilize a voice over (Lonnie Simmons) and a dancer (Michael Morris) to represent the sea god. I don’t think Poseidon is normally regarded as an ethereal deity, but the choice to divide the character between the dancer’s physical form and the spoken voice made the character more otherworldly, rather than tying both the presence and the voice to a single physical form.

There are things I don’t care for in MacEwen’s rendering of The Trojan Women—particularly that she removes Hecuba’s physical weakness, which I think is a key component of the Trojan queen’s valiant struggle—the WVU performance was very strong.

14 November 2016

How I Learned to Drive, by Paula Vogel

Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive is a tough play because it takes on the unsettling subject of childhood sexual abuse. Despite the difficult subject matter, the Red Masquers—a theatre group at Duquesne University—gave an excellent performance, directed by Justin Sines, with really strong acting throughout.

The protagonist and primary narrator of How I Learned to Drive is Li’l Bit, a young woman who grows up being sexually abused by Uncle Peck, which predictably compromises her ability to even conceptualize a healthy relationship. All we really see of her family life is that they are rather vulgarly open about sexuality, and because Li’l Bit develops breasts at a young age her entire school career seems shaped by bullying and harassment. But the main storyline focuses on Uncle Peck’s long term sexual abuse, which, while not physically violent, utilizes most of the typical techniques of an abuser: claiming to love the victim, trying to give them a false sense of control, cajoling, bargaining, and making the victim feel alternately secure and vulnerable. This storyline is interspersed with Uncle Peck teaching Li’l Bit to drive, which is where much of the abuse happens; the driving school style instructions played over the loud speaker become something of a commentary on the movement of the play.

The Red Masquers did a fantastic job bringing these characters to life, which, predictably, was not always comfortable for the audience. Michael Makar (Uncle Peck) was easy to hate as the smarmy sexual abuser. His portrayal bordered between the charming and the unsettling, which effectively showed how abusers so often manipulate their victims’ emotions. And if Makar brought to life the abuser, Fiona Montgomery (Li’l Bit) embodied an abuse victim. Throughout the play, Montgomery always seemed as though a part of herself was shut off, as though there was always a defense, even if Li’l Bit wasn’t consciously aware of it. We saw that is Montgomery’s posture, which was often stooped or hunched inward, not making eye contact with others, and a propensity to be alone. All of these are potential signs that someone, especially a child, has been abused and no longer feels safe in their own body. Though the one critique I would make of the performance is that Montgomery played the character the same way in the earliest scene in the play, when Li’l Bit is 11 and the abuse begins. There didn’t seem to be much of a change from the pre-abuse character to the post-abuse character. The rest of the parts were played well by Anthony Fellowes, Keely Ann Sinni, and Nikki Purwin. Each played multiple supporting roles, including Li’l Bit’s Aunt and grandparents, her school friends, a restaurant waiter, etc.

While the acting was strong, for me the play fell short for two main reasons (and I don’t know whether the Red Masquers cut Vogel’s text or performed the entirety of it). One structural feature that didn’t work were the continual stops for characters—usually Li’l Bit—to narrate things. Changes in time were continually announced as the show moved back and forth from 1969 to the early 70s and back to the early, middle, or late 60s. Most of these shifts were done by allowing Li’l Bit to stop the action of the play and give exposition, in a way that felt both slow and somewhat lazy, because much of what was told to us could have been shown.

The more serious problem is that the play develops a constellation of important elements related to sexual abuse, but really only pursues the immediate relationship between Uncle Peck and Li’l Bit. There is so much that the play gives us just in tiny passing references, but that is actually incredibly important in perpetuating the culture of abuse. For instance, when Li’l Bit’s mother says that if anything happens between Li’l Bit (aged, I think 13 at that point) and Uncle Peck (in his 30s or early 40s), the mother will blame her daughter. Or the scene where a now adult Li’l Bit experiences herself as the abuser when she picks up and seduces an underage boy on a bus—though it isn’t clear whether this actually happens or whether the seduction is just her imagination. But elements like victim blaming, the isolation of victims, and the perpetuation of cycles of violence are brought up but not dealt with sufficiently in my opinion. Instead, the overwhelming majority of the play is simply devoted to showing the abuse by Uncle Peck in a variety of different guises. In its single-minded focus, the play seems to risk tipping over into the territory of the after-school special.

09 October 2016

The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare

This is the fourth, maybe fifth show I’ve seen the Rustic Mechanicals perform, and this is the first one I would say was really good. My major critique of the Mechanicals has been the tendency to painfully overact, but with this cast and for this show, they (largely) resisted that tendency. For the first time that I’ve seen them, virtually all of the cast let Shakespeare’s do the work, which made for a strong show.

The Merchant of Venice is one of those plays that I think is difficult for audiences today, and it certainly is for me (being half-Jewish). The play tells the story of Shylock, a Jewish money-lender, who loans money to Antonio, a man who has humiliated, insulted, and degraded him. The bargain trades Shylock’s money for a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the debt is not repaid. When Antonio’s ships sink it seems as though he cannot repay. At the same time, Bassanio—Antonio’s friend, for whom Antonio borrowed the money—has wooed and wedded Portio through the elaborate trial her father set up for potential husbands. Now Bassanio comes to Antonio’s trial, and Portia disguises herself as a lawyer to come speak for her husband’s friend. Shylock demands his pound of flesh, his revenge for a lifetime of oppression, but through legal trickery Portia argues that he can take the flesh but may not spill a drop of blood, and then that since Shylock threatened the life of a Venetian his goods and property are forfeit, half to Antonio and half to Venice. In short, the ‘happy ending’ of the play involves the long suffering Jew Shylock losing all his property, as well as his daughter whose run off with the deadbeat (though Christian) Lorenzo.

The principal actors of the Shylock plot—John Fallon (Shylock), James Matthews (Antonio), and Josh Brooks (Bassanio)—gave excellent performances, as did the principal actor of the Portia plot—Gretchen Ross (Portia). All of these actors brought a seriousness to their roles that is often lacking in Rustic Mechanicals performances; they put the language of the play at the center of the performance. For instance, Fallon’s performance conveyed Shylock’s stoic suffering at the play’s opening when Antonio spits on him in the street, the bloody revenge he demands in the court, and the abject brokenness of a man whose had everything he loves stripped from him (including his religion) simply for being a Jew. Matthews matched that performance by shifting between anti-Semitic arrogance, humble submission to the knife, and the gracious geniality of the man saved at the last moment from death. Brooks and Ross were similarly strong, showing the complexity of their characters as they move through the marriage plot.

While most of the supporting actors were also good, the one performer who didn’t transcend the Mechanicals’ tendency to overact was Isaac Covey (Balthazar, Lancelet Gobbo, Gaoler). For whatever reason, Covey seems unable to deliver a line without thrashing his body around, modulating his voice for ‘comic’ effect, or gesturing wildly. In an otherwise strong show, Covey’s performance was the only dark spot.