In the Getty Villa's posh amphitheater, against a palatial backdrop on an otherwise expansive stage, the god of the seas, Poseidon (Brent Werzner), with a shock of red hair and a lugubrious voice, rails against the trashing of his beloved Troy by the Greeks. ("My beautiful city" emerges as his recurring motif.) The Greeks tricked the Trojans with the gift of the wooden "Trojan horse," stuffed with invading warriors, who burst out of the "present" and sacked the place. This may be the first recorded incident of bait and switch.
Euripides' play The Trojan Women is an extended lament by the female captives about to be enslaved by the Greek conquerors as spoils of war. It isn't so much about end of empire as the bloody humiliation accompanying what might glibly be called a company merger. The buildings of the old company get burned to the ground and their employees must reapply for their jobs. Let's just say that there are no promotions in the offing.
There is one incident of a Trojan infant offspring being offed, for the offense of being the son of slain Greek warrior Hektor. The Trojans aren't so much concerned with who the baby is as who he might become, the precipitator of a rebellion against the Greeks in a couple of decades. We see the swaddled infant wrenched from the arms of his mother, Andromache (Makela Spielman) to be tossed over a very high wall. That squashes not only the baby but the anthem that had given the Trojan women their only hope: "Troy will rise again." It's part of an ancient war code that takes no chances and shows no mercy.
Leon Ingulsrud bounces on and off the stage in a robust and efficient interpretation of the Greek envoy Talthybius, who must break the news to Andromache that her infant has been marked for execution.
This is a play of relentless despair through the systemic vanquishing of hope. Loss of station, loss of life, loss of city — which in ancient Greek terms, translates into loss of nation.
The play speaks to any place that's been conquered and decimated. Among the 20th century's most chilling adaptations was director Tadashi Suzuki's interpretation, set in postwar, bombed-out Japan. Find any genocide, and you'll likely find a production of The Trojan Women set there.
The Getty is presenting the world premiere of Jocelyn Clark's contemporary adaptation, Trojan Women (After Euripides), directed by Anne Bogart and performed by the SITI Company. Contemporary simply means the language has a modern poeticism and cadence, though Melissa Trn's costumes have a timeless regality.
Bogart/Clark have made some incidental and probably helpful changes: The Greek warrior Odysseus shows up in this version as the embodiment of Greek authority. He's not in the original. The multi-actor chorus, often a cumbersome element in traditional versions, is here embodied by one actor, a Puck-like eunuch (Barney O'Hanlon) and servant of the Trojans whose neutered sexuality renders him an object of derision by the invaders.
Composer Christian Frederickson performs his own sporadic violin accompaniment onstage to quite beautiful effect, enhancing the musicality of the prose.
The core of this production, however, is the bifurcated presence of Hecuba, in a throaty, anguished and blistering performance by Ellen Lauren, with that of Helen of Sparta or Troy (Katherine Crockett), the face (and body) that launched the thousand ships and the 100,000 soldiers employed to return the sultry beauty from the clutches of Trojan Paris to her Greek husband, Menelaus (J. Ed Araiza).
Menelaus makes a jocular entrance as a slightly greasy, diminutive figure, which makes it clear why Helen might have strayed, though she argues she was kidnapped and tried in vain to escape. In one moment of comic relief, his sarcastic wrath melts with her touch. He initially boasts that he's come to see her death by stoning on the shore, an outcome Hecuba would delight in (she says so, and means it) given the lives this woman has cost.
Given that her "kidnapping" is the ostensible cause of the decadelong war, there's the opportunity, here squandered, for a trial of Helen, rather than the mock trial presented here. With Crockett's feline movements, a see-through white gown, jewels and ruby lipstick, the only question in her own defense testimony is whether Menelaus will succumb to her powers of seduction. A far more interesting question would be whether she can build a plausible case, which would shift the cause of the war from a prick-tease to a case for honor (returning the stolen bride). The latter cause of honor makes war no less bloody, but it's among the ostensible reasons wars are fought.
The co-creators have noted that they're not out to replace Euripides' version but to create a new one that stands shoulder to shoulder with it.
The claim is almost beside the point in a production that tinkers with language and movement, and presents the drama with occasional frothy humor and a sweeping, raw power, though I remain unsure as to what larger purpose.
To revisit the text? Done.
To add embellishments such as choreographic movement accompanying some of the speeches? Done.
To allow company member Ellen Lauren a moment under the stars for a truly heroic performance as Hecuba? Done.
But floating in its own design, the production is accessibly tethered to ancient literature but weirdly detached from our epoch, with an earnestness that teeters into melodrama.
How can something so gripping have such a slippery grip on the world we know?
TROJAN WOMEN (AFTER EURIPIDES) | Adapted by Jocelyn Clark from the play by Euripides | Performed by SITI Company at the Getty Villa | 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. | Through Oct. 1 | (310) 440-7300 | getty.edu