Another reinvention of Euripides’ “The Trojan Women,” set in the maternity ward of a postwar women’s prison.
Euripides was a notorious bummer.
From what scholars have been able to cobble together, the ancient Greek playwright trained as a child boxer, left athletics to become a writer, had a couple of disastrous marriages, then grew a long beard and holed up in a cave by the ocean where he mostly read, wrote, stared at the sea, declined invitations to parties and was publicly mocked by comic playwrights (like Aristophanes) for being so glum.
But, centuries after his death, theater’s great party-pooper keeps getting dragged back into the spotlight.
‘The Trojan Women’
by Caroline Bird. Through Jan 29. A Civic Rep production at The Slate Theater, 815 Seattle Blvd. S., Seattle; $20-$30 (800-838-3006 or civicrep.org).
Contemporary writers around the world, for example, can’t get enough of “The Trojan Women,” Euripides’ 415 B.C. play about women being divvied up as slaves for Greek warriors who’d killed their Trojan husbands and brothers. New interpretations and adaptations have been launched by Jean-Paul Sartre (France), Hanoch Levin (Israel), Femi Osofisan (Nigeria), Sergio Véjar (Mexico), Charles Mee (U.S.) and now Caroline Bird (U.K.).
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A new staging of Bird’s 2012 version, by the fledgling Seattle company Civic Rep, is a claustrophobic experience, set in the maternity ward of a post-Trojan War women’s prison.
The seating is tight — the Slate Theater is tucked inside a decommissioned immigration building that used to house a prison of its own — and fluorescent lights flicker and buzz overhead. The pregnant Chorus (Shermona Mitchell) watches along with us as barefoot Queen Hecuba (L. Zane Jones) paces, speechifies furiously and drinks compulsively from a water cooler, crunching the little wax-paper cups and throwing them in a growing heap on the floor.
“What will I be now?” Hecuba rages. “Somebody’s servant. Sewing the names of my enemy’s children into their school shirts, arranging oven chips on a baking tray, a slave to the Greeks who massacred my people.”
The queen describes the glory she once enjoyed (“there was never a single hobo sleeping on our beaches”) before the Chorus wryly responds: “I don’t think we’re from the same area.”
The fact that Hecuba is played by an older white woman and the chained Chorus is played by a younger African-American woman lends that exchange — and the entire production — an extra chill. As Hecuba, Jones expertly flaps between the rage of someone who’s earned her pain (she’s seen a lot of death) and the rage of an aristocrat who’s been demoted. She earns our sympathy then tosses it away like one of her water cups while Mitchell, as the Chorus, groans with the depth of a poem.
“For me, Troy was a painful place,” the Chorus says toward the end of the play — while in labor with her first child. “I never felt safe at night but the buildings rose up like beacons and if you were struggling, if you were poor, it was never Troy’s fault.”
The central tension of Bird’s “Women” is how the queen and the plebeian, locked up together, negotiate the gap between their different shades of grief. Meanwhile, their merry jailer Talthybius (Richard Sloniker) marches in and out with the smug grin of any prison guard who’s trying to pretend he’s doing his captives a favor.
After Hecuba recites the grisly details of what happened to her son’s body after Achilles killed him (he was dragged around Troy behind his own car), Talthybius wafts into the room. “Good afternoon ladies!” he chirps. “I hope you’re hungry because I have brought you saaaandwiches! … Cutlery is forbidden so you’ll have to eat them with your hands, but then that’s how sandwiches are eaten anyway isn’t it? Everyone’s happy!”
Everyone is not happy.
Despite its grim undercurrent, Civic Rep’s “Trojan Women” finds eddies of gallows humor — especially in three gorgeously mercurial performances by Robin Jones as the characters Cassandra (the madwoman cursed with prophecies that nobody believes), Andromache (Hecuba’s fastidious daughter-in-law whose son is slated for sacrifice by the Greeks) and Helen (played here as a repulsively preening woman who’ll jump into whoever’s bed seems most politically convenient). Jones’ characters get whisked in and out of the room by the jailer, and she delivers shrewd and sinewy performances of three characters trying to grapple with their places in a new world order.
This “Trojan Women” is a concise and sharp swipe at Euripides’ continuously popular tragedy, and helps explain why we can’t leave it alone. This production is like a peek into a fetid little bunker that “Apocalypse Now” didn’t take the time to explore.