Should plays teach, or should they entertain? In many ways, this question gets to central issue in Stages of Learning's production of Euripides's The Trojan Women. The company undertakes the difficult task of staging a Greek tragedy while formulating a message about contemporary media and their relation to calamity. What results is a brave, if heavy-handed, tale of woe that speaks to our society's desensitization to tragedy. Euripides had a didactic purpose in mind when writing the play. The Greeks had been involved in the pillaging of the island of Milos, a Greek ally, for its refusal to participate in the Athenians' larger struggle against Sparta. Euripides wanted to call attention to the slaughter of Milos's citizens.
Stages of Learning's production takes this ancient tale, about the fate of the women of Troy after the city falls to the Greeks, and offers a smattering of parodies about modern media. Hecuba (the inconsolable Trojan queen), the chorus, and the invading Greeks appear in scenes involving talk shows, press conferences, Internet voting, commercials, and 24-hour news shows. For example, the opening prologue with the deities Poseidon, Athena, and Apollo is presented as a kind of talk show. Similarly, Talthybius is not only a Greek messenger to the Trojan women but also a Bill O'Reilly-style TV anchorman.
Though humorous at times, these takeoffs mostly seem too separate from the original play. The original and the modern in this adaptation are not organically combined, and the effect is a long, clunky mishmash of conflicting styles.
One of the problems in modernizing a Greek tragedy is that the form has a very specific structure. It was, after all, a highly stylized religious rite in honor of Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine. Like many rituals, it is repetitive, and for an audience accustomed to the more plot-driven style of TV and movies, it can be monotonous.
In this production, the long, tortured monologues, (especially those of Hecuba, but also the opening prologue where Poseidon pontificates at length on Trojan history) could have been made more interesting by action-driven theatrical techniques. Instead, Poseidon stares out at the audience, speaks grandly to Athena and Apollo, and occasionally shakes his trident to emphasize a point. The multiple scenes where Hecuba laments her lost city suffer from the same problem. There is too little action and too many words, and the words are all in the same tone of grief. At this performance, the audience became noticeably, and quickly, tired.
One way the production attempts to counteract such potential weariness is through the addition of two extra, lighthearted scenes not in the original. These scenes take the form of commercials for a particular product. (Think Trojans. You get the idea.) Though humorous, they do little to further the plot, and they do much to make what is already a long hour-and-a-half show longer still.
Most of the back story about the Peloponnesian War is delivered by the chorus of Trojan women in the traditional style of stasimon, a kind of song and dance ritual that in Greek tragedy is slow in both movement and tempo. In this production, the stasimon is particularly lento and melancholy, whereas the scenes that satirize the media are generally upbeat, fast, and funny. In this way, the production points out the difference between what Hecuba experiences and what the audience sees when watching the tragedy through the lens of mass media. The way the news portrays tragic events seems almost fun.
Jennifer Shirley, as Hecuba, is appropriately grief struck while at the same time displaying a proud, matronly manner befitting a former queen. T. Scott Lilly as Talthybius is emblematic of the production as whole: as the quintessential Greek messenger, he is emotionless and detached, but as a parody of an anchorman, he is filled with gusto and mirth. When the two collide, the actor seems confused. In one instance, as the messenger, Talthybius relays the news about who will become slave to what Greek master; then, as the anchorman, he shoves a microphone into the soon-to-be enslaved women's faces. He then stands there, dumbly, not knowing if he is a conduit of the news or the news himself.
The polished set design by Amanda Embry effectively evokes opulence in a state of ruin. Doric columns line the sides of the stage, with one large column knocked over in the middle of the floor.
Euripides was the least popular of the major Greek tragedians. Some believe this was because many of his plays were mostly intended to raise awareness about issues instead of entertaining audiences. So is the purpose of theater to entertain or to educate? As far as pure entertainment is concerned, Stages of Learning has something to learn, based on this production. But in offering a different take on Greek tragedy in terms of our media's treatment of horrific events, The Trojan Women has much to teach.