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A CurtainUp Review

Trojan Women: A Love Story
By Jenny Sandman

I like plays that are not too neat, too finished, too presentable. My plays are broken, jagged, filled with sharp edges, filled with things that take sudden turns, careen into each other, smash up, veer off in sickening turns. That feels good to me. It feels like my life. It feels like the world.

There is no such thing as an original play.
--both above quotes, Charles Mee

Frances Anderson (kneeling) Sam Hurlbut, and Jennifer Elena Ward
Frances Anderson (kneeling) Sam Hurlbut, and Jennifer Elena Ward (Photo: Jeff Georg )
"War is hell," said General Sherman -- and indeed it is. But the aftermath of war is also hell, and is far less glamorous.

Charles Mee's Trojan Women: A Love Story, a retelling of Euripedes' The Trojan Women, is an eerily prescient play. It traces the trials of a group of Trojan women after being defeated by the Greeks. The Trojan War was long and particularly brutal; even at the end of the fighting, the women are still suffering. Their men fought and were killed, but in some ways being widowed and left alone to clean up the army's physical and emotional mess is a far greater ordeal. "Easy to say the war is over/but the men are still on fire," says Hecuba, the former queen. Can anyone find the analogy to Iraq here?

Mee, a former historian, is the newest addition to hipster theatre in New York. He is best known for last year's "love" trilogy--Big Love at BAM, First Love at NYTW, True Love at the Zipper-- as well as Vienna/Lusthaus at NYTW. The majority of his plays are adaptations of much older plays, but borrowing from others' source material is a long and glorious literary tradition; in fact, even Euripedes pillaged other plays when he wrote The Trojan Women.

As a historian, Mee isn't afraid to let the trappings of the past illuminate the present. He is essentially his own dramaturg, and his depth of knowledge shows in his writing. All adaptations should be so well-informed. He is simultaneously a revisionist and a deconstructionist, tearing the play apart and then rebuilding it carefully. The emptiness at the center of his plays give his words space to breathe, affording them a subtle and lingering power. Stylistically, Mee's work is a cross between Mac Wellman, with his linguistic experimentation, and Vaclav Havel, with his deep appreciation of the world's absurdity.

The Trojan Women: A Love Story, while keeping Euripedes' basic story intact and using a Greek chorus, references bombs, former presidents, TV, country club etiquette, dildoes, and dance numbers (including "You Dropped a Bomb on Me"). The characters--one of whom is named Ray Bob-- often speak directly to the audience using a microphone. Mee's is a sly, almost droll sort of postmodernism.

The tag "A Love Story" to the contrary this is not a love story. The survivors stumble wearily through the bombed-out ruin of their city. They have no homes, no food, no clean water, their husbands and children are dead-killed in front of them, in most cases. "In the end we are all/each one of us/consumed by life. Soon all my world will be blotted out with ash," sighs Hecuba. To add insult to injury, the women are to be divided up amongst the conquerors as spoils of war, handed out randomly as concubines. These women, led by Hecuba, are alternately broken and full of shrieking rage, flinching at every loud noise and touch. "This goes past all endurance," Hecuba exclaims more than once. But the women seem willing to accept even this, until Hecuba's youngest daughter, Polyxena, is chosen as a sacrifice to honor the dead Greek hero Achilles. Then fury is loosed.

This is a startling play, but the production values at best are bland so that it's visually boring. The stage is small and hemmed in with thick neutral colored curtains on three sides that make the space feel almost claustrophobic, especially given the large cast. Ultimately, however, the lack of visual stimulation is a small price to pay. Director Ellen Beckerman's vision is a perfect fit with Mee's. In one scene, when a baby is to be yanked away from its mother, and its brains dashed out, the swaddling clothes unwind to reveal a bag of sugar--when the bag is broken open, the women scramble for it, and eat the sugar by handfuls.

Mee is a gem, a truly gifted writer, and the acting is first-rate. Aimee Phelan as Hecuba is outstanding. She is the focal point and the centerpiece of the show, and her presence is such that all eyes are drawn to her. The chorus of women (Margot Ebling, Bricine Mitchell, Jennifer Elena Ward and Frances Anderson) are also arresting, especially when they let go and unleash the full power of their emotions.

Trojan Women: A Love Story is not as carefully crafted or as original as some of Mee's other plays but his fans will appreciate it nonetheless. For those who missed the Mee extravaganza last year, this is a good place to start.

Also running in rep with Trojan Women: A Love Story is The Little Prince,a family theatre piece at which children 6 and up are welcome. At the matinees, there is a free theatre games workshop after the show. Performances are Wednesd>ay and Friday, at 7 PM, Saturday at 3 PM and Sunday at 2 PM.

Vienna Lusthaus

Written by Charles Mee
Directed by Ellen Beckerman
Cast: Frances Anderson, Keith Anderson, Ned Butikofer, Margot Ebling, Sam Hurlbut, Elliot Kennerson, Bricine Mitchell, Aimee Phelan, Jennifer Ward and Jason Woodruff
Set Design: Ken Goldstein
Costume Design: Julia White
Lighting and Sound Design: Rychard Curtiss
Running time: One hour and 35 minutes without intermissian
Double Helix Theatre Company at Phil Bosakowski Theatre, 354 West 45th Street, 2nd Floor 212-352-3101
June 7 through June 21; Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 8; Sunday at 5 Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on June 10th performance

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