Tuesday, May 29, 2012

After the fall

Helen (Aimee Rose Ranger) faces down the Trojan Women.
To paraphrase Browning, a theatre's reach should exceed its grasp - so there's no shame, I think, in Whistler in the Dark's earnest, well-intentioned, but rather flat Trojan Women, which runs through this weekend at the Factory Theatre.  Indeed, those rare souls starved for a shot of Greek drama done Old School may want to seek out this depiction of the terrible plight of the survivors of Troy, even if it doesn't quite gel as tragedy; for it's intelligent and clearly spoken, and unadorned by intrusive concepts (well, mostly); and thus something of the blunt horror of war does come over from Euripides' spare, unsparing text (here in a solid, if not quite inspired, new version by Francis Blessington).

More experienced viewers, however, may sense that even when innocent blood is being spilled offstage, there's little blood on the floor, as it were, in this pleasingly direct, but rarely raw, rendering. Indeed, this production is about as far from the over-designed, overheated posturing of the last Euripides we saw in town (ASP's Medea) as you can get.  Here, under the direction of Benjamin Evett (himself late of ASP), the actors never strike arty poses, and don't have to compete with the lighting design, either: the set is spare, perhaps vaguely Middle-Eastern - it's mostly cushions on crates, around a central tent (basically what you could carry with you on a battle plain), and the audience is pulled right up into the action.  This may be wrong, actually, for Greek drama, which depends on distance for some of its effects - but at least it keeps the focus on the acting.

But ah, there's the rub - the acting here is thoughtful but uneven, or rather it lacks the maturity that such a stark rendering of The Trojan Women requires.  The pain of experience - much less trauma - is hard to conjure at close quarters unless you've lived through it yourself, and as is sometimes the case at Whistler, there's a whisper of the undergraduate theatre major in the air of this production, with young people straining to convey a sense of devastation that's alien to their own lives.

This issue is further complicated by director Evett's one misstep into "concept:" he has given all the major female roles but one (Hecuba) to a single actress, Aimee Rose Ranger.  Now Ms. Ranger is a very talented and beautiful performer, with considerable resources at her command - but let's just say playing Athena, Cassandra, Andromache and Helen in a single production might daunt even Meryl Streep.  What's more, Evett's conceptual gesture doesn't give us much to chew on beyond a kind of blunt "I'm Every Woman!" statement that we'd expect more from the likes of Helen Reddy or Whitney Houston than Euripides.

Ah, Euripides; let's talk about him a minute.  In his day this playwright played second fiddle to Sophocles and Aeschylus, but his work eventually became far more influential than theirs; indeed, Euripides is probably the source of the hybrid mode that flowered as "tragedy" in Shakespeare and elsewhere.   What's more, in his work women come into their own for the first time in the history of the stage (even if they were originally played by men). Indeed, Euripides, like Strindberg and many other male writers, is obviously obsessed with women, and in a peculiarly multi-valent way (he has been called "a misogynist feminist," which comes pretty close to nailing what one senses of his psychological affect).

The Trojan Women almost schematizes this contradiction - through his portraits of these refugees, Euripides boldly sketches the helplessness of women in the Greek state - particularly when subject to the cruelties of war; and what's more, he creates one of the first great galleries of feminine types, from the noble mother to the amoral temptress.  Yet the playwright also points the finger: his women should beware women, for they weep at the whim of Athena (who fought for the Greeks, even if at the moment they've pissed her off), and the source of all their suffering is the insufferable Helen, whose beauty burnt the topless towers of their city, but whom Euripides hints (and Homer confirms) will get off scot-free, as her beauty counts as the baseline for what attracts men (and hence trouble of all sorts) to women in the first place.

You can sense in this subtext what probably tempted Evett to his stunt casting; but in simple dramatic terms - judging from other productions I've seen - variety is the spice of Trojan Women - indeed, its climax (Helen's infuriating self-defense) burns brightest before her victims' seething hatred (which is hard to pull off when the same actress is playing almost all the roles!).  As Hecuba, Rosalind Thomas-Clark does her best to keep those home fires burning - and elsewhere she's a welcome source of believable age and experience - but there's a limit to what she can do.  Luckily Ranger is at her strongest as Helen (although I prefer a more vulpine reading of the role), and she makes an adequate Athena.  It's at the extremes of Euripides' feminine spectrum that she falters; Cassandra has already basically been driven mad by her powers of foresight, of course, but Andromache, too, should be pushed to the edge of a different derangement when the Greeks ruthlessly decide to murder her son (so he will never grow up to avenge Hector, his father - Euripides has few peers in the depiction of the brutal calculations of war).  But alas, at this point in her career, Ranger can't quite deliver either extreme.

There are other moments to savor in the production - Nathaniel Gundy gives Menelaus a crude spark, for instance; but the chorus (whose role is always a tricky proposition) feels underdeveloped, and frankly the pace is never, shall we say, too swift.  Chris Larson has contributed an intriguing sound design, however, and Emily Woods Hogue's costumes and PJ Strachman's lighting (as ever) are apt.  The general thoughtfulness of the artistic team probably makes this a worthwhile introduction to Euripides; but it's hardly the last word on either this playwright or his Women.

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