The Tragedy of the Issue Play

When Euripides composed The Trojan Women his play represented a timely criticism of Greek imperialism, as well as a commentary on cycles of fate. In 417 BC Athens had recently emerged from a ten years' war with Sparta, and was preparing to attack Sicily, a move that would prove disastrous. In his contemporary adaptation, Alfred Preisser uses the structure and some of the themes of Euripides’s drama to address modern issues, incorporating the horrific stories of female victims of the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia. The two plays share as their focus the suffering of women at the hands of men, but the neat parallels end there. Preisser’s “radical re-imagining" of Trojan Women introduces many raw emotions, but the varied critiques are unfocused and the ideas are not well connected. The result is a production that has moving material, but ultimately fails to move.

The play attempts to consider the complicity of the powerful in the suffering of the meek at “the bottom of the world." This is but one of many weighty topics addressed, but not fully explored. In addition, the groups producing the piece, the Harlem Classical Theatre and Harlem Stage, claim missions to tackle race issues in art. In creating a piece that tries to reflect these issues and ideologies, the show sacrifices character development and narrative structure.

Even with the show's problems, several elements of the production are still chilling and effective. Troy Hourier’s well-designed post-apocalyptic landscape of industrial wreckage invokes the grand, but fleeting achievements of civilization (Penn Station). In the opening scene, a girl clings to a chain-link fence like an animal. Her bitter speech ignites a chorus of women who chant the terrible fates of their people: rape, death, and destruction. To tell the stories of the African women, Preisser cleverly retools the traditional Greek chorus, giving it many different voices, which makes the suffering experienced seem both exceptional and tragically common.

The dramatic effect of the chorus is enhanced by Tracy Jack's smart choreography. Though the women speak with individual voices, they move as a unit. At first their combined force is brute and animal-like; they gang up on Helen, screaming at her and calling her names. Their hatred echoes that of the men who terrorize them; a parallel they realize too late.

Toward the end of the play, when Hecuba recognizes the blindness of her former perspective, the group of women executes a gentle series of synchronized movements. No longer screaming, they sing and perform hand gestures that seem to mimic the rising and setting of the sun, as well as the rhythmic beat of rowing. One is a metaphor, the other a Cassandra-like envisioning of what is to come.

Unfortunately, the aggressive rants of the women characterize the play’s approach and tone. Certainly, they have cause for such bitterness, but the material would be more affecting if the tone and the performances were more dynamic. This isn’t to say that all of the performances are ineffective. Zainab Jah is calm and confident as the commanding Helen. Although Helen seems to be a selfish manipulator, the subtlety of Jah's performance leaves room for interpretation. Also interesting is the character of Talthybius, played with sly wisdom by Michael Early. The modern interpretation turns the Greek messenger into a wormy bureaucrat, and his “ugly circles" of speech provide the show's comic moments (a welcome turn after the many horrible displays and the moralizing).

There is a lot that Preisser is trying to do with Trojan Women , and the production suffers from its grand, but undefined ambitions. Whereas Euripides moved his play around the central character of Hecuba, this adaptation lacks that kind of central focus, and introduces several different ideas, most of them somewhat obvious criticisms.

Euripides' play is an interesting vehicle for a critique of modern society, but the themes and structure of the adaptation could benefit from some tightening and a stronger, narrower focus on the African women's accounts, or a more specific connection to the civil wars in Africa. When the audience looks through the fence at Troy it might be looking into a distant mirror, brought up close and personal, but the production’s message is too hazy to inspire critical self-assessment, or change.

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