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Theater review: 'Trojan Women (after Euripides)' at Getty Villa

September 11, 2011 |  5:30 pm

Euripides’ “Trojan Women” is a play that’s suffused with the suffering of war. Aristotle thought Euripides the most tragic of the Greek poets, and anyone who has experienced the hoarse lamentations of Hecuba, the prostrate queen of fallen Troy whose grief takes center stage in this drama, can vouch for this assessment.

Avant-garde director Anne Bogart sees Euripides in a cooler light. The striking if problematic feature of her staging of Jocelyn Clarke’s adaptation titled “Trojan Women (after Euripides),” now at the Getty Villa’s outdoor Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, is its refusal to wallow in the play’s pathos.

The style of the production, performed by Bogart’s experimental SITI Company, promotes a curious aesthetic detachment. The cries of the characters still emerge from a terrible place, but they are carefully conducted and seldom allowed to accrue into a tidal-force wail.

Bogart, who has long employed a unique stage-movement vocabulary known as “Viewpoints,” manipulates the play’s mourning figures as though they were chessboard pieces. Individually, the cast members portraying the Trojan women, a brutalized group of royal survivors about to be shipped off as concubine slaves of their Greek conquerors, give full voice to their characters’ anguish and outrage. But the collective force of the play — an overwhelming, tribal-like shriek of protestation against wartime inhumanity — is diminished. Bogart’s production is filled with boldly original strokes, but the general path of her direction goes counter to what unifies Euripides’ dramatic statement on the immorality of war — its cumulative sorrow.

One radical revision in Clarke’s text is largely determinative of the new tone: The chorus of Trojan women is replaced with a eunuch priest (Barney O’Hanlon). This shift, according to a program note, is meant to draw a sharper contrast between the “Eastern-oriented Trojans (who worship a goddess of fertility in ecstatic and orgiastic festive rites) and that of the Greek invaders,” who feel a need not just to vanquish but to wipe out “an entire culture and its more feminized worldview.”

I’m not sure all this is legible onstage, but with her ranks of women thinned, Hecuba (a vigorously fine Ellen Lauren) is certainly more isolated, the lonely centerpiece of a soon-to-be extinct civilization.

Trojanwomen Moving in and out of her bereaved orbit is her crazed priestess daughter Kassandra (Akiko Aizawa), whose clairvoyant vision of her own bloody death brings her to virtual orgasms of gratitude. Also circulating are Andromache (Makela Spielman), Hecuba’s daughter-in-law forced to sacrifice her infant son to Greek paranoia, and the detested Helen (Katherine Crockett), Menelaus’ trophy wife who by running off with Hecuba’s son Paris prompted the catastrophic military expedition that has left Troy in ashes.

The women, dressed in white flowing dresses blackened at the bottom (a design touch by costumer Melissa Trn that reflects both the horror of war and its stylization in this production), have a contemporary air to them. Crockett’s Helen, in particular, is amusingly coiffed and accessorized as though she were vying for a “Real Housewives” gig. Her dress is naturally unstained — a choice that only accentuates the plastic heart she reveals in the trial scene in which her deserted husband, Menelaus (J. Ed Araiza), comes to feebly hold her to account before a fuming Hecuba.

The cast, which includes a number of vivid male performers, notably Gian-Murray Gianino as Odysseus, a character only talked about in Euripides’ original, is certainly comfortable in a mode of performance that is deliberately more choreographic than psychological. But the lack of emotional connection among the actresses strips the play of a keen source of its power.

Aizawa’s Kassandra is lost in her own prophetic world even more than usual. Spielman’s Andromache has an earthy presence, but whatever feeling exists between her and Lauren’s Hecuba has clearly been blighted by the circumstances. Perhaps Bogart intends to highlight the alienating effect of mass trauma. To hold  on to the meaning of loss, the women wall themselves off to mourn their private share. But I kept longing for the devastation of Andrei Serban’s landmark production of “The Trojan Women,” which I saw in revival years ago at New York’s La MaMa, not understanding a word of the polyglot text but being utterly toppled by its apocalyptic vision.

The setting here is minimalist in the extreme. Against the stately backdrop of the Getty Villa museum, the stage is bare but for a few chairs that are brought in and geometrically arrayed. Composer Christian Frederickson stands in the background and provides somber underscoring. The tableau is promising, even if the exposition seems lumpier and the pain more decorous from the start. But only when Lauren surrenders herself to the scorching agonies of Hecuba’s torment does the play ignite in all-consuming flames.

--Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty 

"Trojan Women (after Euripides)," the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman
Theater at the Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades. 8 p.m.
Thursdays-Saturdays.  Ends Oct. 1. $42. (310) 440-7300 or
Running time 1 hour, 40 minutes

Photos: Top: Ellen Lauren (Hecuba) and Gian-Murray Gianino (Odysseus). Middle: Katherine Crockett (Helen) and Lauren. Credit:  Craig Schwartz/J. Paul Getty Trust