The Greek god Apollo loved a Trojan named Cassandra and gave her the power to foretell the future. When she refused his love, he could not take back the gift of prophecy, but he turned it against her: no one would ever believe her, and it would be her fate to stand powerless, watching as the disasters she had prophesied came true. When she tried to tell her people that there was something fishy about that big wooden horse, no one gave her words a thought. And when Troy was sacked, she was raped by Ajax for her trouble.
Alarms, by Susan Yankowitz, receiving its U.S. premiere at the Calo Theater, features a modern-day Cassandra. Dr. C is an obstetrician-gynecologist who performs illegal abortions when she’s not ministering to unfortunates suffering from radiation sickness. A nearby nuclear reactor is her Trojan horse, and radiation and the nuclear-power commission are her hidden Greek army. No one will listen when she warns them of the danger. Of course, she is a little extreme. She objects to the luminous dial of her lover’s wristwatch, she won’t use shampoo because of the chemicals in it, and her fits of foresight are violent and unattractive.
One of the major problems with this production is that Dr. C’s foresight has long since become hindsight. Yankowitz wrote the play in 1986, and since then the issue of nuclear power has lost its provocative edge, worn down over the last six years by constant debate and cheesy dramatizations. This particular alarm has already been sounded. We had Three Mile Island before the play was written, and we’ve had Chernobyl since–Troy has been sacked and we’re counting the bodies. Alarms is nothing but a two-hour flogging of a fly-blown horse, embroidered with an odd and often shrill feminist twist.
Dr. C’s lines drip with feminist rhetoric; it seems that she’s fighting the good fight not only against nuclear power but against all the evil men behind nuclear reactors. The horribly disfigured victims she treats are women, and dead babies are often mentioned, but there doesn’t seem to be a single man among the wounded or dead. Perhaps radiation leaks don’t affect them. When Dr. C returns home, exhausted, and her long-suffering lover attempts to caress her, she snaps, “Now you’re sexualizing my mammary glands!” The corrupt, double-talking nuclear-power executive (male) sends a sexy spy named Jill to befriend Dr. C and gather incriminating evidence against her. Instead Jill grows to respect and possibly even love Dr. C and sheds her sexy, cynical ways. Mother Earth puts in an appearance, plastic fruit dripping from her wrists; she fixes the audience with a steely glare, then weeps over the fate of the flowers while embracing C. C’s lover can’t take it. He leaves, but not before playing the cello–and surprisingly well. Being a woman, I suppose I should have been outraged by his desertion, but instead I felt a little envious.
As Dr. C, Fenetia St. Borges commits wholeheartedly to a lot of awkward movement (the press release describes the play as “loosely expressionist”) and inane dialogue, but she’s not a strong enough actress to keep her head above water, and there is no indication that Whitney Blakemore’s direction was of any help. Kerry Jerke tries hard to be tough as Jill, but she comes across as more of a Valley girl than a Mata Hari. The performances cannot make up in earnestness what they lack in sophistication. On opening night, most of the actors’ energy was spent in wrestling with recalcitrant set pieces during the scene changes while the audience listened to Sting over the sound system.
In all the times I’ve run across the Cassandra myth, I’ve never understood why the Trojans don’t listen to her–these folks generally tipped an ear toward an oracle when they could find one. I always frowned on the Trojans for being such a conservative, thickheaded bunch.
But now I realize what the problem may have been: Cassandra’s presentation. Maybe she didn’t give them spectacle and riddles, like any other self-respecting oracle. Maybe she didn’t appeal to their fears and hopes, maybe she didn’t engage them. Perhaps Apollo knew that she would simply nag and harp until her very own people were sick of her; and frustrated, she would resort to absurd theatrics to get attention. After seeing Alarms, I sympathized with the Trojans.