Sophocles' Women of Trachis
28th Classical Greek Theatre Festival of the University of Utah
Mayer Theater, Santa Clara University, California, October 12, 1998
Reviewed by Amy R. Cohen
Women of Trachis is the 28th annual production of a Greek play by the students of the University of Utah, and we were fortunate that they took it on the road. I did not get the chance to see the play as it was originally produced (outdoors in sunlight), so it is difficult to say how much it was affected by the switch to an indoor proscenium. The compromise was to keep the stage lights constant-they used no lighting effects-but to darken the house lights over the 300 eager Santa Clara students.
Sophocles' Women of Trachis (also known as Trachiniae) concerns the wife of Herakles, Deianeira, who has been waiting a long time for him to come home. She learns that he is finally on his way when his herald Lichas arrives first with prisoners, one of whom, Iole, turns out to be Herakles' chosen concubine. Deianeira decides to try to regain her husband's love with a potion made of the blood of the centaur Nessus, whom Herakles had shot with a poisonous arrow. When she finds out from their son Hyllus that the potion is killing Herakles, she leaves the stage and takes her own life. The last third of the play shows us the dying Herakles and his instructions to his son concerning his death-husband and wife never meet.
Two things in particular about Women of Trachis bother scholars: its "diptych" structure, and the fact that it ends before Herakles' apotheosis on Mt. Oeta. The Utah production's way of rectifying the latter had a part in exacerbating the former. In order to be "helpful in providing a context for contemporary audiences unfamiliar with the mythology" the company presented their version of a satyr play before the tragedy began, and then added a satyr play apotheosis at the end.
The satyr play itself was quite funny and informative to the unititiated. With only an occasional shouted name or sound effect, they jauntily mimed the whole of Herakles' life before the events of the tragedy. Using only themselves and a few props and costume pieces, the actors showed the whole story at a perfect bawdy level: they treated the erotic and scatological moments enthusiastically and yet so lightly that they never hinted at the grotesque. The anachronisms (such as a mimed shotgun for the Stymphalian Birds), absolutely appropriate to the comedy, were also used sparingly. Best of all, the actors were fearless with their bodies, making convincing monsters and obstacles for Herakles to overcome: three people merged seamlessly into a snapping Hydra, and two small actresses on the hips of a sizable actor made a fair Geryon. After my initial purist scepticism about having a satyr play first, I quite enjoyed it.
The company made the transition to tragedy well, too: they swiftly but deliberately donned more elaborate costumes in front of us, put on masks (on which more below) at the same moment, and together spread a large blue cloth to define the acting space. Dawn McCaugherty, the director, made a fine choice here: she must have known she'd already have the audience in on the game of making characters after the quick-change shenanigans of the satyr play, so what better way to lead the audience into the new world of the tragedy than to have us watch the preparations and engage our imaginations in transforming the actors from clowns to tragedians, and the stage from nowhere in particular to the space in front of a palace in Trachis.
After the fine transition, though, some things began to go a bit wrong. The satyr play seems to have influenced the interpretations of the Nurse (Rachel C. Hsieh), the Messenger (Christian Dives), and Lichas (Alfred Lawrence Smith), who were all played for laughs. Certainly there are hints of comedy in the Sophocles, particularly in the confrontation between the Messenger and Lichas. Unfortunately this production took those hints too far, and the antics of these characters undermined the gravity of a fine performance by Kelly Millwood as Deianeira. Her bearing was regal, and she managed to make her too-late realization of her mistake tragic rather than frantic or comic.
Comedy unintentionally took over in the last part of the play, making the play feel much more two-part or diptych than it might have. Several things conspired to make the Santa Clara students finally start to chuckle when they had been watching quite seriously. Joel Weaver seemed much more suited to comedy, and his Hyllus capered around the stage in hand-wringing and nail-biting indecision. He was not helped by the inevitable staging problem of the end of Women of Trachis: how do you block a long important scene around an invalid Herakles? Ms. McCaugherty's answer was to have Herakles (played by Robert Scott Smith) carried in on a litter, then to upend the litter so that the hero is almost standing in the center of the stage, but still to have him stayed fixed to the litter. Mr. Smith writhed and wailed a great deal, and unfortunately his expressions of agony obscured his words. Since we could not pay attention to the substance of Herakles' speeches, we ended up watching one actor twist about and another actor wonder what to do about it, and the play became funny.
The little pointy beard on the Herakles mask was funny, too, but it was the only real misstep, I thought, among the masks. They were designed by John Michael Zuerlain, and the rest of them only extended down over the nose and cheeks. Although I believe fifth-century masks were probably more representational, these masks were beautiful and yet did not distract from the role (with the exception, as I said, of Herakles). Although they sometimes attempted impossible subtleties with their hidden faces, it was gratifying to see how much even amateur actors trained in naturalistic acting made their masks come alive with their voices and movement. Ms. McCaugherty made a mistake, however, in directing all the actors to speak almost unrelentingly straight at the audience. Not being able to look at one another diminished the intimacy of the relationships among the characters, and weakened the power of their confrontations (particularly Hyllus's condemnation of Deianeira).
Nevertheless, the masks were quite effective, especially on six-member chorus of women. Choruses are notoriously difficult to pull off on the modern stage, but these women (Ms. Hsieh, Leah Crockett, Tammy Davis, Shasta Molnar, Maggie Smith, with Stacey Jenson as Chorus Leader) did an admirable job. Hampered by the translation-Williams and Dickerson's 1978 version, which tends to substitute word repetition for poetry and emotion-they were clear in their recitations of the odes, sometimes speaking separately, sometimes in unison, always professionally in synch with one another. The choreographers, Ann Carter and Tina Masaka, never wasted a step-they found something new for the chorus to do with each ode without forcing variety for variety's sake. I wish, however, that there had been some variation in the tone of the delivery: all the odes looked different, but sounded the same. The chorus was decoratively posed during the scenes, and this was less successful than their performances in the odes: the poses had little meaning, and the synchronized shifts were distracting since the new poses were seldom real reactions to the actors. I also would love to have seen or heard a simple, single flute player on stage, rather than the amplified, over-produced music that mostly just delayed the progress of the play.
My hope for an aulos player was raised by the many conventional choices (and I mean conventional in a good way) made by Ms. McCaugherty and James T. Svendson, the producer and dramaturg. They used masks, they used no lighting effects, and they had the chorus dance. They even made multiple use of two of their actors: Mr. Dives doubled as the Messenger and the Old Man (Sophocles probably had one of his actors do the same), and Ms. Hsieh played the Nurse, Iole, and a member of the Chorus (which Sophocles would not have done). If they had also cast the talented Ms. Millwood as both Deianeira and as Herakles, the play would have broken into two pieces less easily, and it probably would have stayed a tragedy to the end.
My only other quibbles are about inconsistencies. Why have the actors not in a scene stay on stage to watch most of the time, but then have some of them go off stage to make their entrances? If you aren't limiting the actors to three, why take a member from the chorus to play the Nurse and Iole instead of casting another person? But I quibble because this Women of Trachis had so many good ideas - I'm just sorry the satyr play and the weaker actors undermined them.
Amy R. Cohen
Classics, Randolph-Macon Woman's College, VA, U.S.A.