Trojan Women

Goodman Theatre

Why should we hear about body bags and deaths and how many, what day it’s going to happen, and how many this or what do you suppose? Oh, I mean, it’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that? –Barbara Bush, interviewed March 18, 2003, on Good Morning America

Seneca’s Trojan Women probably wouldn’t appeal to the former first lady, wife and mother of men who bombed the tarnation out of the same country. Perhaps she’d prefer the Harlequin romance version–USA Network’s Helen of Troy, which happened to air the night after the Goodman premiered Mary Zimmerman’s vital staging of Seneca’s play. Though nearly 2,000 years old, its portrayal of the ravages of war, the barbaric imperatives of vengeance, and innocents caught in a bloody web is overwhelmingly timely.

Zimmerman originally planned to use her slot in the Goodman’s small Owen Theatre to remount (for the fourth time) The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Her decision to substitute Seneca is a good one. For one thing the play isn’t nearly as well known as Euripides’ tragedy of the same name, and though Seneca greatly influenced many Elizabethan playwrights, his work is seldom performed. But the academic interest of the play–translated here by David Slavitt, who also translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses for Zimmerman’s Tony-winning production last year–is superseded by its resonance with current events. As the war on Iraq seemingly winds down, leaving piles of rubble and unknown numbers of dead Iraqi civilians and soldiers, Zimmerman provides a bold, heartbreaking take on the aftermath of war–the fate of the widowed and enslaved women of Troy.

In some ways the piece is an unusual choice for Zimmerman, whose adaptations usually run to the colorful and fantastic (Journey to the West, The Odyssey) and the delicate and poetic (Metamorphoses). Seneca isn’t lauded for his lyricism–and Slavitt’s translation is muscular. Zimmerman also tends to celebrate the higher reaches of the human soul as it quests for love, art, and knowledge–and Seneca’s play exemplifies Roman Stoicism and veers toward nihilism. One has to look hard to find any remnant of hope amid the ruins of his Troy.

Before the play begins, the Goodman’s deep thrust stage is shrouded with dingy white curtains streaked with black paint. Air raid sirens wail, and blue lights circle ceaselessly overhead. When the curtains precipitously drop to the floor, we see Daniel Ostling’s desolate, rubble-strewn set, larded with chunks of concrete and metal. Lights are attached to a jutting section of scaffolding center stage and to a shredded strand of cables that looks like a gigantic string of intestines. We see the women of Troy, motionless, almost corpselike. Hecuba (Ann Whitney, an admirable late replacement for the injured Caitlin Hart) sorrowfully delivers a monologue that describes the fall of Troy: “Never did we imagine the ground we stood on could give way, shudder, gape open, and swallow all we had and were….We believed ourselves to be safe.”

As the play progresses, the group best representing current American policies are the victorious and uncompromising Greeks, who say over and over that anything less than total subjugation of Troy will mean fighting another war in ten years’ time. At one point two Greeks–Agamemnon and the slain Achilles’ son, Pyrrhus–stand behind podiums and argue over the latter’s demand for a blood sacrifice from the Trojans: Hecuba’s remaining child, the girl Polyxena. Fredric Stone as Agamemnon bears an uncanny resemblance to Dick Cheney (secretary of defense during the first gulf war), whereas Kyle Hall’s shaved head and swaggering rebelliousness as Pyrrhus recall Timothy McVeigh, a veteran of that war who claimed his own terrible blood sacrifice. When Agamemnon suggests that the Greeks should now be kind to the conquered Trojans, the soldier spits back “Kind?” in disbelief and contempt.

The prophet Calchas not only confirms the need to murder Polyxena but demands the death of Hector and Andromache’s young son, Astyanax, to ensure the Greeks’ safe passage home. Tellingly, in this production Calchas doesn’t appear onstage; instead, his pronouncements come in the form of an official letter. This distancing of a religious figure gives Zimmerman’s staging a contemporary punch–invoking the will of the gods becomes just another cynical tactic for the Greeks to displace responsibility.

For the Trojans, religious faith has become a cheat and a lie. The three women in the chorus (Laura T. Fisher, Amy Warren, and Cheryl Lynn Bruce) speak of the afterlife in terms of utter void. “Where will you be when you are dead? Where the unborn are.” The achievements of a human life are compared to a smudge of smoke, a dispersing cloud. This somber meditation conveys the ravages of chaos and the unspeakable grief of outliving all that makes life worthwhile. Even the grim solace of one another’s company–a solace underscored by Zimmerman’s decision to keep the women of Troy together onstage practically throughout the play’s 85 minutes–is denied them in the end, when the women are parceled out as slaves to the Greeks.

Andromache’s charged encounter with Ulysses, sent to kill her son while she attempts to hide him in his father’s tomb, should be the play’s dramatic high point. But at this juncture Zimmerman’s staging feels curiously flat, despite–or because of–Wendy Robie’s overstated performance as Andromache. The character is desperate, but she should also be wily. However, in this production there’s never any doubt that Ulysses will break her hysterical resolve to protect her son. Indeed, Joe Dempsey’s performance as Ulysses is one of the show’s highlights–his smooth intonations recall Ari Fleischer, a comparison enhanced by bloodless lines describing Astyanax as “a destabilizing presence.” In one of his best line readings, Dempsey dismisses the need for torture, saying, “It’s clumsy and it reflects badly on those who use it…too quickly.” That little pause encapsulates the leap that’s necessary for the liberator to become the enslaver, the humanitarian to become the monster.

Helen’s entrance late in the play in thigh-high boots, leather miniskirt, and bright red sweater signals some welcome comic relief. Played as a world-weary minx by Rebecca Jordan (the bit where she sits on a block of concrete, pulls off a boot, and dumps out an improbable amount of rubble is masterfully done), the much maligned Helen is something like an obedient first lady sent on official business. Her job is to prepare Polyxena for her “marriage” to Pyrrhus. And in her own way, she tries to comfort the women whose lives are so different from her own pampered existence. Her advice that they try to face tragedy by looking cheerful is met by one chorus member’s tart rejoinder: “The one terrible thing we weren’t prepared for was to look cheerful, darling.”

In contrast to other versions, the last scene moves the murder of Polyxena onstage. And it’s at this point that the full horror of the story becomes apparent. Zimmerman’s simple but unforgettable choices tie together the violence perpetrated against women on a daily basis with the conqueror’s hatred of the conquered, the need to dehumanize one’s opponents to justify war, and the nearly sexual release that unmitigated violence provides. Elizabeth Reiter’s doomed Polyxena, sadly intoning an aria by Philip Glass, provides a numbing vision of oppression and hopelessness. Hints of birdsong and glimmers of soft light penetrate the gloom, but they could be phantoms, the ghosts of gods and heroes killed off by human vanity, folly, and avarice.

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