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A CurtainUp Review
Trojan Women


Trust takes the lust out of love. .—Helen
a scene from The Classic Theatre of Harlem's Trojan Women
a scene from The Classic Theatre of Harlem's Trojan Women (Photo: Enid Farber)
In times of worldwide violence the temptation to revisit Greek tragedy is irresistible. The ancient playwrights may not have found the answers to any of the problems that plague humanity, but they certainly knew how to ask the universal questions: who causes wars, who suffers, who bears the guilt? Classical Theatre of Harlem's Trojan Women, adapted and directed by Alfred Preisser, imagines Euripides' tragedy in the wreckage of Penn Station and the women as survivors of the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The play begins with a litany of the crimes committed against the living and the dead: murder, mutilation, rape, sacking of cities. Than Talthybius (the excellent Michael Early, impeccably dressed in an expensive-looking suit) enters to inform the women of their fate. Like a CEO whose lot it is to fire half his staff after a bad year, Talthybius lets the women know that he doesn't particularly enjoy what he's doing but he is determined to carry out his orders.

The women treat him with disdain and contempt. Hecuba (the formidable Lizan Mitchell), the Queen of Troy and mother of Cassandra, Hector and Paris, futilely tries to prevent the Greek soldiers from carrying off her daughter, Cassandra (Tryphena Wade) to become Agamemnon's concubine and sacrificing her grandchild, Astyanax, the son of Hector.

But the Greek soldiers are implacable. "We're doing exactly what your men would do if they could, but they can't," they say.

At last, Meneleus (the impressive Ty Jones) comes to collect his wife, the errant Helen (Zainab Jah). Dressed like an American G.I., Jones storms onto the stage. He is brutal and ruthless. The ensuing scene is explosive and perfectly executed.

At first the women are eager to get rid of the hussy who has caused all their troubles. They hope Meneleus will mete out just punishment on the siren they believe left her home and hearth to be with her lover, Paris. But as they pour invectives on Helen, the wily and beautiful woman uses her feminine charms to convince her husband that she is not a seductress but the victim of Paris's lust.

Hecuba and the Trojan woman fiercely deny Helen's version of the story. They insist that if Helen had really wanted to resist Paris, she would have slit her wrists. No woman would allow herself to be raped by a man. Helen defiantly replies, "If that is so, why are you still alive?"

Meneleus has a change of heart, but the women are doomed. Trojan Women ends with the bloodbath presaged by the opening lines.

There are many inspired moments, but the attempt to marry the ancient tragedy with modern wars is not always successful. The chorus, especially in the beginning, sounds much more whiney than tragic. The crimes committed during the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia have been well documented, and their enumeration serves little dramatic purpose. And what did American G.I.s or CEOs have to do with those crimes? What's more, the play never explains how those wars are related to a destroyed Penn Station.

Fortunately, after the first ten or so minutes, Preisser seems to forget about marrying the Greek tragedy to unrest in Africa. And the weakness of the chorus is more than compensated by the skills of the principal actors who bring the tragic elements to life vividly and forcefully.

As for the set, the fact that it's supposed to be Penn Station doesn't take away from its effectiveness. Set designer Troy Hourie makes intriguing use of the space, turning the Harlem Stage Gatehouse, a decommissioned pumping station built in the Romanesque Revival style, into a battlefield, and a prison with a chain link fence and steel doors that open and shut like a vise. For those who can make it past the bumpy start and don't mind a few discordant elements, a truly rewarding theatrical experience awaits.



TROJAN WOMEN
Adapted and directed by Alfred Preisser
Cast: Michael Early (Talthybius), Zainab Jah (Helen), Ty Jones (Meneleus), Lizan Mitchell (Hecuba), Tryphena Wade (Cassandra), etc.
Original Score: Musical Director Kelvyn Bell
Choreography Tracy Jack
Set Design: Troy Hourie
Lighting Design: Aaron Black
Costume Design: Kimberly Glennon
Running Time: 80 minutes, no intermission
Harlem Stage Gatehouse
150 Convent Avenue at West 135th Street
From 1/10/08; opening 1/17/08; closing 12/10/08
Wed Sat at 7:30pm, Sunday 3pm
Tickets: $40 (212) 281-9240 or harlemstage.org
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Jan 12, 2008 press opening


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