The Theatre St. Thomas production of Trojan Women was a rich, densely-textured, intense experience, well above the quality you expect from a university production, at least for a university that doesn't have a professional theatre training program. What was most impressive for me perhaps was just the sheer depth of the experience: costumes, lighting, music, props, and the imagination and reflection that have gone into the staging and performing, all bespeak long- term, engaged commitment by a sizable community of creative, hard- working people.
It's difficult for me to pick out the parts of the production that I was most impressed and engaged by. Here's a list, in more or less chronological order:
Essam Safty's powerful reading and the superlative, spare music by Charles Teed: they told us from the very beginning that this was going to be a strange and powerful, and in large measure alien and exotic, experience.
The opening tableau in general: it participated in that preparation for something odd, and the ascent of Poseidon to the top of the set for the opening monologue was visually gripping and impressive.
Jeff Embleton's Mephistophelean Poseidon, particularly in the early parts of the opening monologue: it set a tone and pace and level of intensity that fed the production for the rest of the evening.
Tania Breen's powerful, affecting and natural inhabiting of the role of Andromache: I believed every word she said.
Stacie Quigley's amazing vocal control: her singing was mesmerizing, and her whisper was as icy and scary as anything I've heard in the Black Box.
Christine Arsenault's solidity at the center: Hecuba's veering back and forth between a kind of sardonic, self-aware Bea Arthur-style tough matron and a screaming Euripidean tragic victim held the production focused.
Jef Bate Boerop's agonized and ambivalent announcing and reporting Astyanax's death: Talthybius' feelings were clearly and expertly defined. If it occasionally looked like a sort of combination of various gestures and strategies I've seen before, it was nonetheless effective and affecting.
The production values altogether -- lighting, costumes, props: the space was full of people and action and meaning. Helen's red dress and long, bare legs over there in the corner, for instance, and the way the red was picked up elsewhere in the production, were powerfully effective. In general, I found the quality of the production made me feel that everyone involved believed profoundly in Euripides' and MacEwen's script and in the production, and saw themselves as offering me the best opportunity they could to think and feel with them.
That said, I have to say as well that on Friday night, at least, the whole didn't seem to amount to a lot more than the sum of the parts. Wonderful as many of those parts were, they didn't come together into the kind of overwhelming experience I might have hoped for. I'm not quite clear about why, though I have some guesses.
It may be that the most obvious place to look for things not quite fitting together is in the way the chorus of women was presented. They were neither purely ceremonial and symbolic (after all, it's a Greek chorus) nor naturalistic (some women sitting around in the ruins in the aftermath of yet another stupid misadventure by a bunch of glory-bound men). They had business, but I couldn't understand quite what it was: it was symbolic business rather than real business. So sometimes they seemed to be motivated by the fact that they were women with stuff to do, and other times by the fact that Euripides and MacEwen needed them to do something. I loved the cacophonous shouting at Helen, over there in her bower -- but it didn't seem to come, somehow, from the same production as all that untangling of rope and ripping of cloth. They didn't, in other words, seem to have motives for moving around the stage; but at the same time they seemed to need them in a way that a more traditional chorus wouldn't. (It occurred to me later that perhaps if they had obviously been preparing for the burial of Astyanax the whole time it might have worked better.)
I had a similar problem with the soldiers bustling through: there seemed either too much of it to be stylized or too little to be naturalistic. Perhaps had there been more jingling and swaggering, more sense of an imagined world off the stage which the soldiers related to, it might have worked better: or, on the other hand, had they been more obviously ceremonial and symbolic.
There was a difficulty around the mime of hauling in the Trojan Horse, too; in the last analysis, it didn't seem to amount to much. I expected some kind of climax, but what happened was that the intensifying light simply faded away, and there we were back in the ruins. Clearly we couldn't haul the horse onstage, but I expected something -- perhaps a silhouette and some drums -- to end the section.
I'm not sure it was part of the same sense of things not quite fitting together, but the production included some fairly violently contrasting styles of acting. This is, of course, related to the demands of the script, but (for instance) Tania Been's naturalistic, powerful Andromache seemed to come from a different world than (for instance) the much more stylized characterizations of Navenda Reynolds as Helen and Stacie Quigley as Cassandra. In part this is because Andromache's problem is a lot more comprehensible to all of us -- more human in scale -- than Cassandra's, or Helen's, or Hecuba's, for that matter.
A problem I encountered a number of times was simply understanding what characters were saying at moments of stress. It's difficult, of course, to make the words understandable in the corners of the Box when you're out at the extremities of hysteria, as Poseidon and Hecuba and Cassanda were -- but if the audience loses track of what's being said, in a script like this one where there's so little plot momentum to haul you along, they're in danger of losing focus on what matters.
It may not be important, but I couldn't help wondering why we went to recorded music at the end. I thought the live work had been amazing all evening, and didn't know why we didn't get it right through.
The wonderful script itself intensifies the effect of these kinds of problems. Because it's accumulative rather than developmental, isolated problems count for more. There's not really a sense of plot, of anticipating what's happening next, to pull us through such things. Like most Greek tragedies, it poses the problem of overcoming the static feeling that comes from a series of set monologues: in this case particularly, Euripides' structure is mostly poetic and intellectual and emotional rather than dramatic: he piles up the awful stuff and people talk about it -- there's not much room for dramatic tension. At worst, it's just one damn thing after another. What connects the separate characters' misery isn't action and causation, but verbal and emotional parallels.
The spilled wine at the end might serve as a nice emblem of both the production's strengths and its weaknesses. What was strong was the visual symbolic effect: the bloodlike wine spilling down across the mask of Poseidon as a way of summing up what this has all been about. What was weak was the fact that it was obviously a symbol: it wasn't so much Talthybius spilling his wine, as Jef Bate Boerop creating a symbol for us. It didn't arise out of the action, almost as an accident; it seemed more a decoration put on top of the action.
In the last analysis, though, I couldn't be more grateful for the opportunity to get this far inside this strange and oddly familiar world, to remember again how the people and problems that Euripides saw as so important all those centuries ago are still directly relevant here at the brink of the twenty-first century.