Review: The Trojan Women by University of Texas Theatre & Dance
by Michael Meigs
I have puzzled and puzzled about this production. Meghan Kennedy and Kimber Lee preserve the approximate shape of Euripides' great tragedy. Their text rarely echoes his lines directly, but it includes scenes of sharp, cadenced prose or blank verse that evoke the terror and hopelessness of brutally widowed women left in tattered clothing, dirt and desperation.
Almost as good is Lesley Gurule as Andromache, widow to Paris and mother of the doomed infant Astyanax, even though the adapters have turned her into a stumbling drunk with bottle in hand, so blinded that she pays no attention to the child in the perambulator she is pushing. Was it a stage glitch that during her entering maneuver up and across a low platform she managed to dump the kid entirely? Little matter, because Kennedy and Lee have imagined women so insensible to motherhood that neither she nor any of the women in the huddled group hold the child. They leave him bundled in the pram overnight.
When you adapt a piece of this power, authority and antiquity, you are presumed to have a concept. What's going on here? Is the company trying to make The Trojan Women more relevant to today? To challenge the traditional relation by altering characters or relationships? Do those burned-out television sets hint at some psychological apocalypse?
We really don't know. The program has a tidy little bit of dramaturgical history about Euripides, but the closest to exegesis of the new script is the director's note from Halena Kays, which reads, in its entirety,
"It is a dream to have designers and playwrights together from the start of a new adaptation; the images and sounds you are about to experience have sprung from every member of our artistic team due to their willingness to collaborate and risk. Thank you team.
"Thank you, audience, for choosing to see live theatre today; it is very punk rock of you. If you have any comments about the show please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for coming. Have fun."
Euripides sends a reluctant Talthybius on in mid-play to announce the Greek council's decision to put the infant heir presumptive to death, precipitating a powerful moment of grief, submission and farewell pronounced by Andromache and the women. That builds later when the regretful Talthybius brings the shattered child's corpse to the women. In the Kennedy-Lee version, as noted, the kid is, well, kidnapped. Those enemy soldiers, inexplicably clad in camouflage and black face masks, have no problem tippy toeing in at night and stealing the silent child away. Emilio Banda as Talthybius seems to have acquired some humility when he returns the corpse. The arrival of the shrouded little body opens an impressive and moving ritual of grieving and burial, carried out principally by Hecuba rather than by Andromache the mother.
And then the clincher.
In Euripides, Menelaus arrives to take as prisoner his unfaithful wife Helen. She is brought in. Menelaus is tempted to kill her immediately. Hecuba, who hates the woman, persuades the man at least to hear what Helen has to say. He doesn't buy it, Hecuba adds some further harsh words, and Helen is escorted to the black ships of the Greeks.
Kennedy and Lee follow that scenario pretty closely, except. . . . Menelaus is a clueless young man in a dapper, buttoned-up summer suit and he keeps recording memos to himself on a dictaphone device. Rodney Richardson as Menelaus has an Eddie Murphy tendency to smirk, mug and offer exactly the wrong remark but he lacks any vestige of Eddie Murphy's charm.
Why? Yes, she's a luscious bit of eye candy, but Verity Branco is one of the most talented actors in the UT MFA program. Witness, for example, her turn as the spider lady Mrs. Cheverley last February in Austin Shakespeare's An Ideal Husband. Branco could stand on stage motionless in a granny dress and create for you an electric portrait of the pathos, confusion and mendacity of Helen. So what's the message with this caricature?
UT's version of The Trojan Women has lots of impressive language. It brushes very close to the real horror of violence and conquest, but recoils into silliness, as if apprehensive that the video generation won't comprehend or tolerate serious examination of one of the culture's most profound rejections of war.
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