The Trojan Women by Euripides
Directed by Eric Hill
Mt. Holyoke College
February 13, 1994
Reviewed by Robert W. Bethune
Warwick, NY, U.S.A.
E-mail: bobbethune AT delphi.com
Greek theater demands movement. Even if we were ignorant of the staging and conventions of Greek theatrical practice, I believe that the nature of the plays themselves would call for a performance involving strong physical expression. The force of the thought and the size of the passions call for an aesthetic expression involving the full potential of the performer's voice and body.
The theatrical styles and performance techniques developed by the Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki have attracted a good deal of attention among theater people in Europe and North America. It offers, among other features, a very specific approach to movement expression. This approach is very physical, even athletic; it involves a strenuous use of the limbs and torso, often creating and holding sculptural body shapes with great extensions of the limbs and large displacements of the center of gravity. It is highly choreographic, demanding exact execution of movements in rhythmic patterns that are often made to be extremely slow and delibarate, even painfully so. Suzuki vocal technique is equally stylized, strenuous, and formal, emphasizing a deep, resonant chest voice with a good deal of pharyngeal roughness.
Because this style is capable of projecting outsized passions and ideas, it certainly would present itself as a possible approach to anyone considering a production of any of the Greek plays. Indeed, Suzuki himself did a rather celebrated production of Trojan Women in Japan.
Eric Hill, the director of the Mt. Holyoke production, has studied with Mr. Suzuki and has done a number of productions of Western classics in this style over the last ten years at StageWest, a professional regional theater in Springfield, Massachusetts. The Mt. Holyoke production involves a cast of students trained by Mr. Hill in a special semester-long workshop headed by a professional actress, Kelly Maurer, in the role of Hecuba. Ms. Maurer has also had extensive experience with Suzuki technique in Japan and the U.S.
The artistic bloodlines of the production are obviously very strong. The limitations inherent in the relative inexperience of a college cast are obvious. Taking both into account, what can we say of the results?
My impressions of the text, adapted and translated by John Barton and Ken Cavander, are based on the performance only. It appears to be a rather freehand rebuilding of the original. Poseidon and Athena have been cut, and the text plays in a crisp seventy minutes or so, suggesting that the rendering of the longer speeches has been done with a view to keeping them concise. The language is straightfoward, unornamented, and direct, spoken very forcefully with little apparent attention to rhythm. Choral passages are broken up among individual voices.
The production is framed in a concept that what we see takes place in an artist's studio. The artist, we are told, unveils her statues, who come to life and enact the play. That, at least, is what we are told in the program. The framing concept is intended to remind us of the ever-present anxiety due to the recurring danger of nuclear war.
What we see, after a rather lengthy playback of some rather intriguing vocal music by Arvo Paert, is the entrance of a woman dressed in fashions of the 1940's into a large, rectangular space, set diagonally to the audience. The back walls are fronted by a wide pedestal platform or shelf on which we see figures covered with white sheets. The space has an art- deco feel done in extremely dark tones--a very slightly greenish black with a glossy surface and figuring, perhaps somewhat reminiscent of the abstract figuring on Greek vases, done in dark gold. In addition to the statuary, we note an overstuffed chair, a plain chair with a bent wood back, and a refrigerator.
As the woman moves about the space with the exaggerated, slow extensions typical of Suzuki movement, she very deliberately grasps each sheet and pulls it off. As she does so, we see that the figures she reveals are also dressed in 1940s fashions, including hats which somehow, miraculously, do not come off with the sheet. How that was accomplished without driving nails into the actress's heads remains an astonishment to me. She then goes to the back of the stage and hangs up her coat in a massively oversized armoire.
The woman is, of course, Hecuba, as we hear from her first speech. The figures are, of course, the chorus of Trojan women. Named characters such as Agamemnon, Cassandra, Polyxena, Talthybius and so forth, appear in various ways, most often via doors reminiscent of the doors of the Restoration stage in the downstage corners. Certain characters appear through the armoire, including Cassandra, who makes a very striking entrance blasting out of the armoire in full scream with a rope around her neck and dressed in vivid white--a startling contrast to the dark tones elsewhere predominant. Talthybius and his sidekick have the remarkable habit of entering and exiting through the refrigerator. He also speaks by opening the door of the freezer section, creating a most unusual image of the The Iceman as Talking Head.
The use of 1940's styles serves Helen remarkably well; she is played by Frances Anderson as a classic film-noir anti-heroine in black sunglasses, low-brimmed hat and tight skirt. She teases the audience with her body before turning the full force of her breasts loose on Menelaus, who is instantly driven, quite literally, to his knees, his mind turned to mush. The cynical humor played up here and in a few other places provides the only emotional variety to the tone of merciless agony maintained throughout the rest of the play.
The production ends in a striking visual and kinetic image, as the women, now fully cognizant of their fate while quite unreconciled to it, move en masse toward the audience in the slow, muscular Suzuki style. The moment is a very simple thing choreographically, but the image of these powerful, silent, strong women moving slowly and purposefully toward us as the lighting reduces them to fading silhouettes creates a very powerful impression of their bloody but unbowed frame of mind.
The curtain call is equally striking. In form, it is the traditional pattern: come out, line up, hold hands, bow, bow again, move off, solo bow for the leading lady. In style, it is done in the familiar Suzuki movement pace and rhythm. The set also gets into the act, performing a slow and stately version of the collapse of the walls of Troy beneath brilliant red lights and smoke. The effect is of a Suzuki parody of the end of a musical comedy.
The play itself is strongly performed. The Suzuki approach suits the emotional tenor of the piece, and the performers are able to sustain the form with strong emotional connection to the material. The student performers show an admirable degree of mastery of a difficult and demanding performance technique well outside the range of any theatrical experience they are likely to have had before. Ms. Maurer demonstrates the subtleties possible within the form in the hands of someone with much greater experience with it. The staging is visually striking; in particular, the bold use of color sustains the emotional tenor of the production with considerable force. The choice of period added little or nothing to the experience except for the treatment of Helen. The fact that I am totally incapable of resisting the observation that the use of the refrigerator left me cold does not diminish the truth behind the pun. I am completely unable to see how an audience would have related any of this to anxieties about nuclear war without reading the program note--a cold way at best to get the message.
My general observation of this and other productions in Suzuki style is that the technique has a limited affective range. While I can very well imagine a Suzuki Oresteia, and even more strongly a Suzuki Titus Andronicus, I cannot imagine a Suzuki Lysistrata or Much Ado About Nothing. While this may merely indicate the weakness of my imagination-- for all I know, Suzuki may have done a Lysistrata--the point is that I do not see that this technique offers resources for the depiction of the human state in colors other than black. To be truly useful across a wide range of dramatic literature and theatrical expression, it will have to find ways to broaden its emotional horizons.
In particular, I believe the formal and choreographic nature of the approach limits its emotional appeal. While strong codification can confine the fire of passion and thereby focus its intensity as if in a crucible, more often it merely cools the blast, rendering cognitive what should be affective. Effective performance of the Greek and other classics demands a vigorously physical aesthesis, and it is true that the dominant approaches to acting in the United States cannot supplly that physicality in any quantity, but I think the search for a way to produce it cannot end with Mr. Suzuki's work. We need something else--something more spontaneous, more immediately authentic, and more immediately capable of arousing a precognitive,
Robert W. Bethune
E-mail: bobbethune AT delphi.com
Robert W. Bethune is a freelance director, actor, designer, playwright and critic who teaches at Orange County Community College and Upsala College, Wirths campus. [Ed. Note: This information was correct as of March 1994. For more up-to-date information, please see http://www.freshwaterseas.com.]