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.