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The Trojan Women

"Day is breaking and with it, our lives."

The Trojan Women
(L-R) DeAnna Supplee and Rebecca Rad (Photo: Allison Stock)
If you ever think you're having a bad day, Euripides's The Trojan Women always serves as a good reminder that things can usually be a lot worse. Thought to be among the earliest anti-war dramas in western culture, the play depicts the women of a fallen Troy grappling with the horrors that have already transpired—their husbands are slaughtered, their city ravaged, and they themselves are to be taken back to Greece as slaves—and encountering even more fresh ones.

The production now at the Flea stages an adaptation written by Ellen McLaughlin in 1995 as a response to the Bosnian War. The original 1996 performance at Classic Stage Company included former Yugoslavians who had come to New York as refugees. "Even with a cast who had no acting training and whose English skills were minimal," McLaughlin wrote, "we found that the ancient power of Euripides' text spoke clearly of the timeless sorrow and suffering of the victims of war."

You can say that again. In any somewhat faithful translation or adaptation of The Trojan Women, this powerful sense of sorrow and suffering is absolutely dominant. This can be an affecting asset if deftly accommodated, but it can easily turn into a liability if not played with precision. Consider how much has happened to these women before the play begins; that's just the baseline, and (not-so-spoiler alert) things still manage to get significantly worse.

Which brings us to the Flea's production, directed by Anne Cecelia Haney. Swiftly paced at an hour—the adaptation itself is only about twenty pages—this Trojan Women tends to be overwhelmed by these intrinsic difficulties of Euripides's text, exclaiming emotion more often than truly demonstrating it.

You can see Haney and her cast, made up of members of the Flea's talented resident company the Bats, grappling with the weight of the play. Queen Hecuba (DeAnna Supplee) speaks and moves as if afflicted by a heavy burden. Cassandra (Lindsley Howard), whose gift of prophecy gives her the starkest perspective on her fate, embraces her destiny with a disquieting levity. Helen (Rebeca Rad) attempts to claim joint victimhood but undercuts herself by her eagerness to twist the knife in the women's wounds. Andromache (Casey Wortmann), as a counterpoint, is decidedly less stoic as she responds to the dissolution of her family.

Meanwhile, a chorus of women (Amanda Centeno, Chun Cho, Clea DeCrane, Jenny Jarnagin, Kyra Riley, and Jennifer Tchiakpe) dance themselves into a frenzy (choreography is by Joya Powell) and sing songs emphasizing the joys they have lost (Christa Kimlicko Jones is vocal coach). The chorus is often spotlighted in segments interspersed among those that focus more closely on the named characters, creating a rhythm of emotional ebb and flow that feels too tidy for this incredibly messy drama.

The production takes place in the intimate setting of the Flea's downstairs theater, which has been given a gritty patina by scenic and costume designer Marte Johanne Ekhougen. (Complementing the sparse set is a finely tuned lighting design by Scot Gianelli and a smooth sound design by Ben Vigus that includes some impressively executed distorting effects.) Within these close quarters, some of the performance's more forceful moments seem designed to confront and menace the audience. This tends to distract from the actual plights of the characters, which occupy a different register. Other attempts to universalize the story and implicate the audience can also have a distancing effect—a chorus member praying with rosary beads, for example.

When it's all said and done, you can't help but marvel at the tremendously tragic tale, but The Trojan Women hasn't crossed the crucial line between jolting and heartbreaking. It's easy to see the production reaching for deeper resonance, but as it attempts to reckon with the difficult task Euripides has set up, its many elements wind up feeling alchemical. The end result isn't distasteful, but there's the disappointment of a missed opportunity. You want to feel devastated, but what you get hews closer to numbness.

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The Trojan Women by Euripides
Adapted by Ellen McLaughlin
Directed by Anne Cecelia Haney

with Amanda Centeno (Chorus), Chun Cho (Chorus), Clea DeCrane (Chorus), Phil Feldman (Talthybius), Lindsley Howard (Cassandra), Jenny Jarnagin (Chorus), Thomas Muccioli (Poseidon), Rebeca Rad (Helen), Kyra Riley (Chorus), DeAnna Supplee (Hecuba), Jennifer Tchiakpe (Chorus), and Casey Wortmann (Andromache)
Scenic and Costume Design: Marte Johanne Ekhougen
Lighting Design: Scot Gianelli
Sound Design: Ben Vigus
Choreographer: Joya Powell
Vocal Coach: Christa Kimlicko Jones
Assistant Director: Eugene Ma
Stage Manager: Martha Beggerly
Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission
The Flea Theater, 41 White Street (between Church and Broadway)
Tickets: $15-$35, with lowest price tickets available on a first-come, first-served basis;, 212-352-3101
From 8/24/2016; opened 9/1/2016; closing 9/26/2016
Performance times: Monday and Wednesday–Saturday at 9 pm; Sunday, September 11 at 3 pm; and Sunday, September 25 at 5 pm
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 8/31/2016 performance

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