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The current Duke University Department of Theater Studies’ presentation of the classic Greek tragedy The Trojan Women by Euripides (c. 480-406 B.C.), based on a new adaptation/translation by Alan Shapiro and Peter Burian, with original music by New York composer Allison Leyton-Brown and lyricist Stephen Tomac, is a shocker — as it was always meant to be. First performed in Athens in 415 B.C., in the midst of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), The Trojan Women implicitly attacked the Athenian political establishment for sacrificing democratic ideals on the altar of expediency. When the curtain rose on the original production of this powerful message drama, Athens had just conquered the neutral island of Melos, afterwards slaughtering all the male survivors and selling all the surviving women and children into slavery.
Now the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave is waist deep in the Big Muddy of another increasingly unpopular war in a faraway place, not so very far from the ruins of Troy. So, DTS director Ellen Hemphill transforms this collegiate production of The Trojan Women from a gut-wrenching anti-war tragedy into a macabre and menacing circus/cabaret, in which the title characters recite their tales of woe to an audience of soldiers indifferent to the anguish and suffering of the victims of their military conquests.
Euripides set his play in the still-smoking ruins of ancient Troy, immediately after the famous surprise attack by soldiers hiding inside the Trojan Horse allowed the Greeks to end the decade-long siege of Troy by decimating the city and slaughtering or enslaving its inhabitants. Ellen Hemphill sets her radical new Bertolt Brecht-like reinterpretation of The Trojan Women in the center ring of a seedy circus tent, brilliantly evoked by set and costume designer Jan Chambers and ominously lit by lighting designer Ross Kolman. Nightmarish roustabouts — Greek soldiers in grease paint — torment the surviving members of the family of King Priam and his inner circle. Theirs is truly a fate worse than death; and when they describe their suffering in song or the spoken word, the play becomes a macabre anti-war cabaret.
Garishly dressed Poseidon (Edward Charles Wardle), god of the sea, dons a top hat and sunglasses to serve as emcee of the show. He shares his catbird seat, high above the action, with a livid Athena (Bridget Bailey), goddess of war and wisdom and patroness of Athens. Poseidon helped build Troy, with the help of the Sun god Apollo; and he still loves the city and its people. Athena, who overtly helped the Greeks defeat the Trojans, has her panties in a wad, because of the subsequent slaughter of her devotees and desecration of her temples. Ultimately, they agree that the spoils-laden homeward-bound Greeks, who are only waiting for a favorable wind before they sail, will find storm-tossed seas, shipwreck, and disaster just over the horizon.
Queen Hecuba (Maggie Chambers), widow of King Priam and mother of the dead hero Hector, the dead scoundrel Paris, and the living prophetess Cassandra (Molly Fulweiler), is the foremost captive among the Trojan women. Hecuba’s daughter-in-laws Andromache (Madeleine Lambert), widow of Hector, and Helen (Grace McCalmon), widow of Paris, also await word of their ultimate fate from the officious Greek messenger Talthybius (Martin Zimmerman) and the incensed Spartan King Menelaus (Davis Hasty).
Brett Aresco, Reid Cater, Paul Reid, Danny Smith, Ruffin Sykes, Samuel Tasher, and Parker Treacy form the show’s male chorus; and Erica Bossen, Katie Lee, Jacqueline Langheim, and Juliet Summers form its female chorus.
Edward Wardle is good as Poseidon, Maggie Chambers (Hecuba) and Madeleine Lambert (Andromache) provide poignant portraits of grief as the two most piteous of the Trojan women, and Grace McCalmon (Helen) gives a haughty portrait of that famously beautiful blonde unrepentant sinner. Martin Zimmerman (Talthybius) is chillingly bland as an Adolf Eichmann-like petty functionary who will carry out any order from above, no matter how horrendous; and Davis Hasty (Menelaus) is a pistol as a cuckolded husband who deeply resents — but may not be able to resist — beautiful Helen’s starling last-minute attempts to worm her way back into his affections.
When the awards for this season’s finest theatrical accomplishments are finally given out, director Ellen Hemphill and set and costume designer Jan Chambers should rank at the very top of their respective lists. The imaginative and resourceful director, who routinely wows Triangle audiences with her Archipelago Theater productions, scores a triumph in here with a cast of student actors. Chambers, whose sinister set and wonderfully lurid costumes simply have to be seen to be believed, is also at the top of her game in this must-see collegiate presentation of The Trojan Women.
The Duke University Department of Theater Studies presents The Trojan Women Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 17-19, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 20, at 2 p.m. in the Sheafer Theater on the lower level of the Bryan Center on Duke’s West Campus in Durham, North Carolina. $10 ($7 students and seniors). 919/684-4444 or http://aux16.auxserv.duke.edu/peo/show.asp [inactive 7/06]. Duke Department of Theater Studies: http://www.duke.edu/web/drama/events/PR/Trojan%20Women.html.