Ah, they don’t write them now the way they used to. Euripides’ The Trojan Women (415 B.C.) is arguably the most celebrated drama with a dominantly female cast in all of Western culture, rivaled perhaps by Garcia Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba. The conflict, however, is not a catfight between the women, as it is in Claire Booth Luce’s immortal comedy, The Women. Or even in the current upscale bodice-buster movie The Other Boleyn Girl, itself an uncredited remake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
No joy in Troy: From left,
Rosemary Palladino-Leone, Rachelle Clavin, Nora O’Dea, Dawn E. Sadowski
and Judy Kishtok in Appleseed’s The Trojan Women.
Euripides’ women may be limited by gender roles—mother, wife, sister, daughter or possibly mistress—but like other characters in Greek drama, they struggle with the lots that fate has cast them. Unlike Shakespeare’s women, who were young boys in drag, these women speak as women found at different stages of the journey through life.
Community theater groups ordinarily look upon Greek drama as a form of poison suitable only for college companies, or perhaps Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre, which retold the fall of the House of Atreus in two long dramas, Bloodline, in 2006. The never risk-averse Appleseed Productions (at the Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave.) and director Dan Stevens have taken on this venture with their eyes open and, without ever being patronizing, address audience apprehensions. Instead of the choral speaking and verse monologues of the original, impossible to translate, this version by University of Chicago scholar Nicholas Rudall favors plain-spoken American English prose. Consider Queen Hecuba’s non-regal utterances: “I don’t know, but I fear the end is near,” or “You Greeks. . . you love making war more than you love being human.”
Some speeches are still fairly long, loaded with detailed exposition, but the often prolix chorus has been jettisoned. That does not mean The Trojan Women becomes the kind of realistic drama William Inge or Terrence Rattigan might have written. Action is a bit ritualized, and listeners tend to stand transfixed, like caryatids holding up the temple. Costumer Barbara Toman, however, has made sure that none of the characters look like icons, and you can keep the personalities straight without reference to a myth dictionary.
Helen (Wendy Sikorski) here is not the face that launched a thousand ships but rather a scarlet woman, literally, ready to make deals in the flesh. Cassandra (Heather J. Roach) is no longer only the ignored doomsayer but becomes here, with bare midriff, bare feet and disarrayed hair, a deranged princess undone by her sexual abuse from the invaders.
The Trojan Women was the third of three unconnected plays Euripides wrote about the fall of Troy and its aftermath. It was never intended to be what we would call today a costume drama. The names of all but the most minor characters would have been known to opening-night audiences. Instead of telling a story, the playwright intended to explore the human emotions of these well-born and powerful women as they faced imminent degradation and humiliation.
Action begins with thunderous chords from Verdi’s Requiem and blackout shots of jackbooted Greek invaders sacking Troy and abusing whatever women they can find. At the side we see a chess game in which the incensed goddess Athena (imperious Rosemary Palladino-Leone) plays chess to determine the fame of the women. As she had patronized the invading Greeks, she could hardly be neutral. Former queens and court ladies are to be divided up to the conquerors as slaves, servants and concubines. Successive announcements of bad news come in waves with messengers and late-arriving noblewomen.
At the center of the action, withstanding blow after blow, is the former queen of Troy (Nora O’Dea). Even away from this drama, we know Hecuba is one of the most demanding of all roles. In Hamlet the Danish prince wonders at the hard work of the actors in the play-within-the-play and exclaims, “. . . All for Hecuba!” Director Stevens and O’Dea (Mrs. Dan Stevens) could have taken that as a cue.
O’Dea, a Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) nominee last year, has always been a busy performer, usually known for comedy, like April 2007’s Steel Magnolias for Theatre ’90. Even counting her well-crafted Gertrude in January’s Syracuse Shakespeare Festival mounting of Hamlet at Syracuse University’s downtown Warehouse Theater, she’s never been asked for and delivered so much. Consider the wide emotional colorings: dignity, maternity, monarchy, reflection, outrage, acceptance and grief. Once queen of the eastern Aegean, she is to be given to fork-tongued, wily Odysseus, who will do with her what he wants in far-off, comfortless Ithaca.
Echoing her fate is her daughter-in-law, tall Andromache (Dawn E. Sadowski), who will become the concubine of Neoptolemus, undistinguished son of vain Achilles, who had killed and brutalized her husband Hector. She will learn on stage from the golden-throated Talthybius (Tony Bersani) that her young son Astynax is to be killed for fear that he might grow up to seek revenge.
Many strong supporting players enrich the cast: Heather J. Roach as Cassandra in a mad scene worthy of Lammermoor; spicy spitfire Wendy Sikorski as the scene-stealing Helen; Rachelle Clavin’s affecting Laodice, an empathetic court lady; and Dustin M. Czarny’s resentful cuckold Menelaus, just the male chauvinist pig a cutie would want to betray. Appleseed brings The Trojan Women alive after 2,423 years, warm-blooded, accessible and in living color. ❏
This production runs through March 15. See Times Table for information.