It couldn’t be better had it been planned: an opportunity to see productions of two plays by that old Greek, Euripides, in one weekend — The Trojan Women at UNC-Asheville and The Bacchae at Warren Wilson College. Better still: both are presented outdoors, just as the Greeks would have had it.
College productions of Greek tragedies make perfect sense: Most of us, if exposed to the Greek at all, met them first as undergraduates, at an age when their elemental pull could exert a strong influence on our not yet fully formed minds. And it’s primarily in academic settings that we’re able to contextualize the proceedings properly: These plays don’t speak to us from any present perspective; we must enter into their world to get anything from them.
This is precisely what Rob Berls’ mounting of The Trojan Women, in a fine, recent verse translation by Diskin Clay, accomplishes. From the moment you sit on a gentle hillside of UNCA’s mini-quad, and look at the raised platform, billowing painted backdrops and backstage tents of this all student-designed and constructed show, you begin to appreciate the splendor of simply setting a drama of the gods and mortals outdoors. (Note well: the acoustics are surprisingly good, even with a breeze blowing. And though passersby provide a periodic jolt into the present, they’re not too distracting to ruin the effort.)
When the performers appear, in their plain, toga-like outfits, military gear, and — most important — half masks, we enter a world not only distant from our own, but rooted in ritual. Greek theatre was a conjoined civic and religious affair, and the strong stylization, enhanced by choral voicings and movement, remove us from our day-to-day reality the better to focus on matters of moment.
The story of The Trojan Women concerns the relentlessly sad fate of the women of Troy after the ten-year war that destroyed their beloved city and killed off their husbands. (Though received wisdom suggests Greek audiences knew these tales well, you’d never know it from the extensive exposition of the text. If you’re rusty on your Greek myths, fret not, for Euripides fills you in.) The gods Poseidon (Casey Harrell) and Athena (Caitlin Angermeyer) provide the background: The war’s over, it’s time for the Greeks to sail home, and they’ll take their captive women with them (and be punished for angering certain gods).
The central character, Hecuba, is rendered with great strength and restraint by Bridget Patterson. (Yes, that Hecuba, referenced by Hamlet: “What’s he to Hecuba or Hecuba to him / That he should weep for her?”) Fallen queen of the dead King Priam, now Odysseus’ prize, she is prostrate, supported by her retinue of women whom she, in turn, must rally to face their collective and individual fates.
Daughter Kassandra (Katherine Palm), given the gift of prophesy, warns that she will be killed when handed over to Agamemnon, and so will he. But since she has also been cursed never to be believed or even understood, her parting from her mother is woeful, indeed.
Daughter-in-law Andromache (Katherine Lancaster), and her son Astyanax (Virginia Aughe), appear in a big-wheeled, wooden cart. Greek guard Talthybios (Cole Pettus, in a strikingly moving performance) takes the boy away, for he has been condemned to death for fear he will grow up and seek revenge for his late father, Hector. Etc.
We think of Euripides as more modern, in psychological and dramatic terms, than such predecessors as Aeschylus and Sophocles, but there’s precious little we would recognize as dramatic confrontation; most speeches are formal and declamatory, a quality only emphasized by the rhythmic, unison chanting of the chorus of Trojan women (who are called on to do an enormous amount of weeping and breast-beating, to boot).
The standout scene is played between Menelaos (Jake Bowden) and Helen (Rachel Gordon), the wife whose betrayal led to the whole, miserable war. With Hecuba as interlocutor, Menelaos and Helen recapitulate their failed marriage, as Helen (portrayed as perhaps a touch too much of a contemporary slattern) pleads her case, and pledges her love, in a desperate attempt to save her life.
Helen’s carried off, and then the dead Astyanax is carried in on his father’s shield, to be prepared for ritual burial. The women, including Hecuba, are taken down to the ships, and Talthybios stays behind momentarily, to review the sorry scene.
The tragedy, here, is all too common in our modern world: Soldiers fight, and civilians suffer mightily and, far too often, horribly. Still, it remains difficult for the ancients to speak to us in voices we fully understand. And yet, and yet … great, great strength remains in these dramas that serve as the basis for the Western stage. Their incantatory power holds, and this Trojan Women, by committing to the old ways, makes us see and feel anew.
The Trojan Women, by Euripides, translated by Diskin Clay. Directed by Rob Berls. Scenic Design: Rhiannon King. Costume Design: Sydney deBriel. Mask design: Tay Newbold. Makeup design: Will Storrs. Weapons Master: Stephen Mancuso. Stage Manager: Rian Barbour.
With Casey Harrell (Poseidon); Caitlin Angermeyer (Athena); Bridget Patterson (Hecuba); Cole Pettus (Talthybios); Katherine Palm (Kassandra); Katherine Lancaster (Andromache); Virginia Aughe (Astyanax ); Jake Bowden (Menelaos); Rachel Gordon (Helen); Caitlin Angermeyer (Chorus Leader); Rachel Hinson, Sydney Herndon, Stacy Hines, Rebekah Williams, and Stephanie Nezo (Chorus of Trojan Women); and Cory Cheeks, Jeff Samarco, and David Vestal (Greek Guards).
Shows held on the Reynolds Green lawn, located in front of Carol Belk Theatre. Curtain is 6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee. Rain date is 6 p.m. Sunday, April 25. All shows are free and open to the public. Patrons are encouraged to bring lawn chairs and blankets.