Directed by Torquil Campbell
Euripides' The Trojan Women
Translated by John Barton
Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound
Translated by James Scully and John Harrington
with a prologue by Moira Wylie
The Angel Orensanz Foundation Center for the Arts
Lower East Side, Manhattan, NYC
13 April 1997
Reviewed by David Kilpatrick
State University of New York at Binghamton
Polytechnic University at Brooklyn
The Lucky devil T.C. production of Tragedy, including The Trojan Women and Prometheus Bound, was staged in a neo-gothic former synagogue in New York's Lower East Side, a haven for experimentation in all forms. The building's interior has an abandoned quality, which was conducive to the creation of a tragic atmosphere. As the audience (numbering some sixty five) took their seats, medieval chanting played through the p.a.. The stark stage was at seating level, a blank gold canvas suspended for a skene where an altar may have been. Two ramps went out vertically from the center-back of the space, linked to two ramps which came vertically back toward the center of the hall. The ramps and floor (which was covered with canvas) were painted in shades of lime green, in a camoflage pattern with a red streak up the middle.
The performance began with a prologue, the actors wearing white masks and sheets, whirling about in dance to the beat of a single drum. When they gathered in formation, they called out both their character and 'real-life' names. This 'postmodern' reflexivity was furthered when the actor (Paolo Pagliacolo), claiming he will play Menelaus, appeared dressed in streetclothes with basketball sneakers, calling out 'New York. City of towers. Nourished by the sea... America! Country of adventures. We dare!' When he shifted from contemporary place to ancient, the word 'Troy' was followed with 'Iraq.' The first mention of character names, 'Helen. Io,' was followed with 'Oil.' These brief allusions to the Persian Gulf crisis were abandoned after the prologue, leaving the audience to question their mention.
The prologue gave way to The Trojan Women, with the chorus of women taking off their white masks and robes to reveal dresses of solid earth-tones. As they lay scattered across the floor, as in sleep, a drunken Agamemnon led a bound and gagged Cassandra into the play space (perhaps a more appropriate term than 'stage'), where he taunted and groped at the prophet, while lamenting his daughter's sacrifice. Immediately it was clear that Euripides' text would not be followed absolutely. Euripides begins the play with Poseidon and Athena agreeing to punish the sacrilegious Achaens. These gods never appear in the Lucky devil production, whereas Agamemnon never appears in Euripides' text.
Hecuba appeared with a white staff, played by Joanna Reynolds with perhaps too much emphasis on elocution. Jo Anne Glover's Cassandra swung a camping lantern for a lit torch as she naturalistically portrayed her mad prophetics. One could imagine Ms. Glover playing a similar Ophelia. The chorus of Trojan women oscillated from a powerful display of anguish, to a too enthused remembrance of a golden Troy, as if able to easily forget their present sorrow. A song which recalled their joy at the great horse's arrival into the city gates seemed forced and superfluous, a show of musical ability which contributed nothing to the play's somber mood. At the mention of Helen, the chorus would make a cat-like hiss. Its effect was quickly lost.
Four hoplites were costumed in green masks with contemporary camoflage fatigues, splattered with red paint. Two of the hoplites carried toy-like spears, while the other two carried toy-like rifles. Their martial movements reminded one of automatons, unable to convey the brutality of the Achaen conquerors. Perhaps their rifles and robotic disinterest were meant to tease out a relation to the Iraqui allusions of the prologue.
Menelaus was dressed like a Roman centurion, while Helen (Makeda Harris) was clothed in red satin with a golden headdress. While the casting may have been color-blind, an African-American Helen as the object of the all-white Trojan chorus' scorn begged racial interpretation, an inversion of significatory codes of victimization. The hoplites didn't seem to extend much effort as they kept the Trojan women away from Helen, as she kissed her Spartan husband and led him towards his ship.
All of the Achaeans were masked, with Agamemnon, Menelaus and Talthybius (Marc Goodman) wearing much larger, more colorful and ornate masks than the simple green masks of the hoplites. Only Talthybius unmasks, but the chorus look away, as if unable to glance at the face of an Achaen. They showed no difficulty in looking at his face, however, when he returned carrying the body of Astyanax (played by the young Erica Wylie).
The death of the boy prince Astyanax is surely the most pity provoking piece of the play. But when Andromache (Sarah Olmsted) regrets her son's birth, snickers could be heard from the audience. While arrogance could be expected from the son of Hector, when Astyanax pulled out a toy gun (apparently intended to represent a toy) and aimed at Talthybius with a 'bang,' an element of comedy emerged at absolute odds with the tragic moment. This was furthered by the prince's leading the hoplites out as if they were his servants.
For the final scene Talthybius was unmasked with flask in hand. When he commanded Hecuba to depart for the ships, she kissed his forehead, before leading the chorus out through the audience, along the red streak at the center of the floor. These Trojan women were proud, not broken, strangely free in their enslavement.
As Andrei Serban's recent (re)production of The Trojan Women at La Mama (a few streets north a few months ago) proved, radical reworkings can often bring forth the tragic in more powerful ways than a close and faithful reading of the extant text. However, this Lucky devil production displayed the risks involved with directorial liberties. Nonetheless, the piece had its rewards, the strength of the dramatic material coming through despite the production's failed experiments.
An enthusiastic audience returned after the intermission to witness Prometheus Bound. Dressed in grey overalls, with mallet at his waist, a large-masked Hephaistos (Desmond Reilly) limped through the audience with Power (David Paluck) and Violence (Heather Hubbard) dragging Prometheus. With Violence dressed as an American football cheerleader, a large red 'V' on her white sweater, and a gold mask, it was clear the risk- taking had not been exhausted with The Trojan Women. Wearing a pinstripe suit with a silver mask, Power bounced and leapt with great athleticism, as he urged Hephaistos to bind the Titan. Nicholas Keene, a skinny, tatooed, bearded but bald-shaven Prometheus was bound by each wrist to chains, roughly thirty metres in length, which were attached high to the side balconies of the play space. The effect of this minimalist staging was startling in its simplicity. Power and Violence exchanged a lusty kiss, before Violence cartwheeled toward Prometheus, to kick, slap and punch the Titan. The overexcited enthusiasm of the cheerleader, blended with sadistic delight, proved that here director Torquil Campbell's instincts were uniquely on track.
The entrance of the chorus of Oceanids was no less startling as they, dressed in royal blue, whirled about Prometheus, their white sleeves making wing-like gestures behind their backs. Rather than wearing masks, blue facepaint about their eyes completed the chorus' otherworldly appearance. Whereas the song in The Trojan Women was adequate at best, here both the melody and signing were sublime; I did not want the song they sang at their entrance to end. In The Trojan Women the chorus sounded at times like a hissing cat. As the Oceanids listened to Prometheus list his gifts to mankind, they made purring sounds like cats do when they imitate birds. These layers of imitation worked well, with the absolute abandonment of naturalistic acting methods perhaps a dramaturgical necessity.
Wearing a large mask, like Hephaistos and the Achaens of the first play, Ocean (Kevin Chalmers) came across like a smooth-talking pimp, complete with silver platform shoes. When he advised Prometheus to 'know thyself,' it was as if he were pushing a drug. As with Helen, race again appeared as an issue when the African-American actor used '70s colored street slang, saying to Prometheus, 'Your drift is obvious...' Chalmers played the arrogant wind-bag to the hilt, to hilarious effect. It must have been difficult for Prometheus to hold back laughter.
Claudia Besso was captivating as Io, blending the mannerisms of a cow with a sensuality capable of arousing the father of the gods. Her costume of white body suit with brown hooves and horns did much to add to this mix of repulsion and desire, as her speech somehow conveyed the struggle between human speech and the animal's 'moo.' This ambivalence was heightened by the fearful curiosity of the chorus, who seemed to irritate the suffering ancestor of Heracles.
Hermes (Marc Goodman) wore a large mask and a navy blue suit, with the word 'messengers' across the shoulders like the back of a Hell's Angels' leather jacket. The impossibility of a verbal victory in a stichomythia was diminished by the swarming chorus around Hermes, which seemed to terrify the psychopomp. Likewise, Prometheus appeared to magically toss Hermes about like a sack of cloth with his threats. The suggestion that Hermes may have lost his verbal combat with Prometheus took away from the severity of his sentence of torture for the Titan. But this was the sole questionable interpretive decision Torquil Campbell made with his Prometheus Bound.
When the chorus of Oceanids joined Prometheus in an embrace, the Titan's final words, 'see how I suffer, how unjust this is,' rang powerfully through the former synagogue. The perhaps failed experiments of The Trojan Women were more than made up for with this highly imaginative vision of Prometheus Bound. It is in the nature of experimentation that failure will more likely come than success. But such risk-taking is vital if the classic dramatic texts of antiquity are to be brought forth with relevance to the contemporary stage. Such daring surely makes for more interesting theatre-going than a bland production which clings cowardly to the text. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that by sticking closer to the text of Aeschylus than with Euripides, Campbell and company were able to carry themselves and their audience closer to the tragic. While the production did not quite reach the intensity of Dionysian frenzy, this was only the company's second effort on the New York stage. Offering themselves and their audience much in the way of trial and error, Lucky devil Theatre Company will do well to further their explorations of Tragedy.
State University of New York at Binghamton
(David Kilpatrick is an adjunct lecturer in humanities at the Polytechnic University at Brooklyn.)