Love and Death

Trojan Women 2.0 is part of Charles Mee's ongoing "(re)making project," in which he has "pillaged the structures and contents of the plays of Euripides and Brecht and stuff out of Soap Opera Digest and the evening news and the Internet" to create new plays of his own. This text draws primarily from Eurpides's Trojan Women for its first act and Berlioz's Les Troyens for its second, but also incorporates various other sources. Mee mashes his source material together with references to contemporary history and popular culture to create a beautiful and often devastating mosaic that is simultaneously an antiwar play, a tone poem to erotic love, and a meditation on sex, class, and gender. A text this emotionally and philosophically complex is an ambitious undertaking for any theater company. For a small Off-Off-Broadway company with limited resources and two shows in production simultaneously, it's an almost impossible feat. Despite this production's several strengths, the Milk Can Theater Company has failed to pull off the impossible this time out. Nevertheless, at a time when commercial and institutional theater has largely failed (with notable exceptions) to engage with the events and issues dominating what remains of public discourse, Milk Can should be applauded for taking on the project at all.

The play's first half is set in a Troy shattered by both the invading Greek army and the anachronisms Mee so gleefully scatters throughout the script. A chorus of grieving women, led by Hecuba (Mary Ellen Toomey), is in mourning for their husbands, their children, and their city. There is a ragged dignity in their sorrow, but it is soon interrupted by the arrival of Talthybius (Kenneth L. Naanep) and two Greek soldiers (Malachy Orozco and Joe Sevier), who announce that each of the women will be given to a Greek soldier or nobleman to do with as he pleases. The stakes are high and the tragic tone unrelenting, with the exception of a few moments of comic relief.

Some of the actors were more up to this challenge than others. In general, the chorus of women performed admirably, particularly Toomey, who presided over their grief in an appropriately regal manner. Mary Greenwalt's comically narcissistic Helen recalled Paris Hilton, while Satomi Blair's Pat Benatar-like Cassandra brought a welcome rock 'n' roll energy to the production.

The actors playing the interloping Greeks were somewhat less successful. Naanep struggled to infuse the businesslike Talthybius with some degree of pathos by affecting a quavering and breathless vocal quality that robbed him of his authority without actually winning him any sympathy. His companions appeared so relatively meek in the face of the women onstage that it seemed the soldiers, rather than the widows, should fear for their lives. Many of the actors seemed overwhelmed by the sustained and heightened emotion required by Mee's long monologues and the plot's tragic dimensions. The result was far too much shouting for far too long.

In general, the actors fared better with the lighter and shorter second half, but the production never quite recovered from the difficult first act. Some of director Lauren Reinhard's choices were problematic as well: her "feminist utopia" Carthage at times resembled an old Evian commercial, with white-robed women performing yoga-like choreography to comfort and seduce the bewildered soldiers. As in the first act, the female lead was, appropriately, the strongest presence. In this case, Lindsay Drew presided over the stage with her multivalent portrayal of a torch song-singing Dido.

Still, there was much to admire in the coherence and scope of the production. Michael Gugliotti's ambitious and aggressive lighting created several distinct moods with a handful of instruments; Mick Moore's sound design was similarly effective. Costume designer David Winthrow employed a variety of suits, robes, belts, and tatters to reference both past and present while still contributing to the sense of a consistent onstage reality.

The actors looked exhausted during the curtain call, no doubt the result of a difficult rehearsal process leading to a sometimes frustrating opening-matinee performance. As flawed as the performance was, an ambitious failure is in many ways more rewarding than a safe bet. At the end of the show, a fund-raising pitch included the daunting statistic that only 3 percent of Off-Off-Broadway companies make it to their fifth season. The Milk Can Theater Company, at the beginning of its fourth season, took on more than it could accomplish this time around, but I can't help hoping it beats the odds and gets the chance to try again.

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