Review: `The Trojan Women’

Opened April 10, 2008 at the Aurora Theatre, Berkeley

Carla Spindt (left) is Hecuba, queen of fallen Troy, and Sepideh Makabi is a member of the Greek Chorus in the Aurora Theatre’s production of The Trojan Women. Photos by David Allen

Aurora resurrects timely, wrenching Trojan Women
3 ½ stars War in pieces

Watching Barbara Oliver’s production of The Trojan Women at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, there’s every indication that this will be an intelligent, sharply directed version of Euripides’ Greek classic about the ravages of war.

Using Ellen McLaughlin’s hour-long adaptation (which was “inspired” by Euripides), with its crisp, direct dialogue, Oliver and her cast present a stylized version of the Trojan War’s devastating end – devastating to the women of Troy, most certainly. There’s something rather placid about the production, with its lovely choral dancing (choreography by MaryBeth Cavanaugh) and its striking but bizarre setting: designer John Iacovelli has placed the Trojan women in the middle of the Vaillancourt Fountain in Justin Herman Plaza along San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

It’s an interesting choice to be sure, and the square tubes (minus the water, just like the real fountain so often is) afford some interesting, echo-y sound opportunities for sound designer Chris Houston. The sculptural structure also looks great under Jim Cave’s lights.

But the production, at its start, has that remove of “we’re performing a vital piece of dramatic history with relevance today,” interesting but less involving than the Aurora’s previous Oliver-McLaughlin collaboration, The Persians, in 2004.

Then the dramatic artifice begins to be stripped away. First it’s the entrance of Helen (Nora el Samahy, above right, with Spindt), the kidnapped woman over whom a thousand ships were launched and for whom the Greeks destroyed the city of Troy. She enters wearing a black fur coat and vibrant red dress. She’s bejeweled and with every hair in place (costumes by Anna Oliver).

The beleaguered Trojan women loathe Helen, understandably, especially the fallen Queen of Troy, Hecuba (Carla Spindt). “What have you ever borne other than a lover’s weight?” the queen hisses at Helen. “The contempt of the world,” Helen shoots back.

The women spar verbally as Helen attempts to equate her servitude as a kidnapped woman in Troy and the pain of this “remorseless noon light” of “endless visibility” with the women’s new position as the spoils of war, or “baggage,” to the Greek soldiers.

There’s no reasoning with any of the women, and the Trojans fall on Helen and basically rip her to shreds (fight choreography by Gwen Loeb).

It’s a savage, defiling moment, and the play comes to life in ways that have nothing to do with history or intellect. From this point on, it’s all passion and pain.

It’s hard to imagine a moment more devastating than the one involving Andromache (Emilie Talbot, below, center) and her infant son whose father, Hector, was killed by Achilles in battle. Andromache has now been promised as so much chattel to Achilles’ son, and her attitude is astounding. She’s sad and angry but resolute. She realizes she has been blessed to have been given life and she will not waste it. She vows to keep the memory of her slain husband alive through her infant son. And for a moment, hope comes to the women of Troy.

Then a Greek soldier (Matthew Purdon) arrives with instructions to throw the infant from the parapets of Troy. There’s no artifice in Talbot’s reaction. We feel every jagged shard of anguish in Andromache’s soul when that baby is ripped from her. It’s an astonishing moment, and it’s exactly the kind of moment you hope for in watching a play more than 2,000 years old when time ceases to matter and human emotion and connection is the one thing in the universe that matters.

The consequences of war — their human cost — are what linger after The Trojan Women. Any kind of war play, new or old, can’t help but bring to mind current conflicts and what we’re not thinking about beyond the headlines and the constant stream of bad news. There must be women in Iraq who loved Baghdad before it was, as Hecuba calls Troy, “the end of memory…loss beyond comprehension.”

Of course there’s a play to be written – The Iraqi Women of the Afghanistani Women – but until then, a line from McLaughlin’s The Trojan Women echoes: “Another war is ended. When will the next begin?”

The Trojan Women continues through May 11 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit for information.

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