Chicago Actors Ensemble

Euripides’ The Trojan Women is a cry, a shout of anguish, a gasp of woe. After Troy has been sacked and all the men have either died or fled, the women of the city await news of their fate. Horror mounts upon horror as the queen, Hecuba, is promised to the hated Odysseus, Cassandra to Agamemnon, and Andromache to the slayer of her husband. Andromache’s child is killed, and at the close of the play the women of Troy are forced to undergo the ultimate humiliation as the woman who started the whole thing, Helen, leaves the city unscathed with Menelaus, the man who had once promised to slay her.

The Chicago Actors Ensemble has chosen to bracket Euripides’ play with a rather peculiar beginning and ending, which suggests a certain inconsistency or incompleteness of interpretation. This production opens, in a dense haze of dry-ice fog, with a modernized prologue that sets the scene in a hip, irreverent tone. And at the end, after the final scene of hopelessness and devastation has been played out, the actors skip back onstage for their curtain call grinning from ear to ear as if they have just performed Oklahoma! In between, they stage The Trojan Women as one long, desperate wail interspersed with unconventional movement and line readings, an indication that perhaps Chicago Actors Ensemble could not decide between a traditional interpretation and a more offbeat contemporary one.

In Mary Derbyshire’s nihilistic adaptation, there are no gods. The characters of Athena and Poseidon have been eliminated, and Poseidon’s prologue has been reworked into a rhythmically bankrupt rap number that offers such cringe-inspiring lyrics as “Poseidon was pissed.” All the male characters have also been eliminated, including Menelaus, whose duplicitous and malleable character provides a fair amount of the intrigue in the original text.

The idea is to focus our attention on the plight of the women of Troy, on their miserable state as the ultimate victims of a war they did not create. Adapter/director Derbyshire uses a cappella songs, percussion (drums and costumes hung with bells), and a few dance sequences to bring their tragedy to life. Cassandra’s mocking celebratory monologue, about her joy at marrying Agamemnon so that he might be slain, is sung as a dirge. The chorus’s wrath toward Helen is underscored by the cast’s West Side Story-like finger snapping. Another of the chorus’s speeches is chanted to a patty-cake beat.

The result is a lot of angst but not much substance. Concentrating their efforts on the rhythm and movement, the cast lose much of the language. The cavernous Chicago Actors Ensemble space magnifies the poor diction of many of the actors. Lines are rushed, garbled, and occasionally rendered unintelligible. The chorus also perform their lines inconsistently. A few of the members develop characters and give clever, insightful readings, while others behave like a traditional blank-faced chorus, delivering their speeches in a monotone that occasionally borders on the comical. And when the chorus is silent, a few of its members grimace distractingly at the proceedings, twisting their faces into nauseated expressions.

Some of Euripides’ text, however, does survive the interpretation. Jodi Kanter gives a sympathetic, heartfelt portrayal of Andromache, one of the few performances that register the play’s intense emotions. Julie McKelphin’s portrayal of Cassandra has some interestingly menacing moments, although on opening night her diction was problematic. Hilary Mac Austin’s Hecuba is less effective. She shouts and wails like a banshee, drumming her fists into the ground and raising them to her lips like a figure out of a Munch painting, but she does not make us sympathize with the old queen who must live out her life in slavery. What is Hecuba to us that we should weep for her?

What one feels at the end of this Trojan Women is not so much a sense of tragedy or outrage at the horrors of war but a confused dissatisfaction. Eliminating portions of the text and some characters confuses rather than clarifies the play and makes it seem incomplete. This powerful work should move and shock its audience, not leave it indifferent and the cast skipping and grinning. Somehow in all the hustle and bustle of creative interpretation, Euripides’ words have been lost.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.