Friday, April 18, 2008

"The Trojan Women": ☼ ☼ ☼

No one knows today exactly where the fabled city of Troy actually was -- somewhere on the west coast of modern Turkey -- but the ancient legend, reported in Homer's Iliad, lives on. It is the tale of Helen of Troy, the most desirable woman in the world, whose beauty drove both the Greek and Trojan kings to madness and war, culminating with the famous Trojan Horse and the destruction of one of the finest cities of the ancient world. The year was 1184 BC.

But what happened next? The Professional World Premiere of Ellen McLaughlin's fine "The Trojan Women," running for four weeks at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, stops to consider not the victorious Greeks, but the plight of the Trojan wives, daughters and sisters, after their home has been destroyed and they are faced with death or slavery. It is a mesmerizing story, which forces us to realize that history has always dealt with victory, not with the despair, borne by the survivors, that follows defeat.

At first, Barbara Oliver's production feels over-emoted -- a stage filled with wailing women in modern dress -- but, as one gradually settles into the scope of the unfolding tragedy, one realizes there is plenty to wail about. "I dream of a city, my home," they repeat, as the sea god Poseidon, dressed like a sea captain, enjoins them to keep sleeping: "From the moment you wake until your deaths, you will all be exiled."

Standouts in the cast are Queen Hecuba (played by Carla Spindt), Cassandra (Sarah Nealis) and Helen herself (Nora el Samahy). Hecuba has most of the lines, but Helen, dressed in a red dress, full-length fur coat and high-heeled leather boots, is the most conflicted -- she caused the whole war, but knows she never asked for her beauty: "What I have, the Gods gave me."

Perhaps Andromache, Hecuba's daughter (Emilie Talbot), gives voice to the most unanswerable question, as she surveys her destroyed city, her lost husband and murdered child: "Where are the Gods who loved us?"

The Gods aren't talking. McLaughlin's play is based on Euripides' "The Trojan Women," first published in 415 BC. Times do not appear to have changed all that much since the Greeks first started writing about it.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Trojan Women" three stars. The cast as a whole earns one, but the short running time (one hour, no intermission) does not allow any one character to outshine the others; the playwright's excellent original dialog, written in the style of the Greeks, earns another star; the last is for having the sense to stop the despair just short of demanding the audience run out to the snack bar and ask for a glass of hemlock. If the show had run another fifteen minutes it may have become unbearable, but one hour is just fine. We exit the theater ready to sit down, drink strong coffee and talk about what we've just seen.

"The Trojan Women"
Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Wed.-Sun. through May 11; $40-$42

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