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Rotten Families

June Carryl as Hecuba, surrounded by Trojan Women
Paul Rubenstein

Euripides’ The Trojan Women, the most famous in a trilogy of dramas written about the Trojan War, features the saga of the Trojan horse — the famous trick played out in Troy, when the Greeks gifted the Trojans a large, wooden horse during the Peloponnesian War. It’s hard to build trust after something like that, no matter how progressive one’s politics. The play is a post-traumatic wail by Troy’s surviving royal women, whose husbands and sons have been butchered, and who have now been sold into slavery to various Greek kings.

The Trojan Women is performed frequently around the world, which isn’t bad for a dour lament first produced in 415 B.C. Yet when Euripides dutifully entered his trilogy into the Dionysus Festival, it went nowhere. First prize was taken by a playwright named Xenocles, whom almost nobody has heard of since. That should tell you all you need to know about playwriting competitions and new-play festivals.

In his new adaptation of The Trojan Women, Charles Duncombe has spun it into a macroscopic view of human barbarity, depicting scenes of rape and genocide from Rwanda and Sierra Leone (which director Frederique Michel stages as a balletic dance of death), with running news commentary by an actor on the side (Michael Galvin), who keeps asking the bludgeoned and dismembered how they feel. So even in the depiction of unbearable human brutality, Duncombe adds cutting shards of satire, aimed at the way we receive the news — something Euripides steered away from. (Then again, Euripides didn’t have to contend with FOX News or CNN.)

Early in the production, a Dummy and a Ventriloquist (David E. Frank and Michael Galvin) give a slapstick explanation of the Trojan War, and why nobody cares because it was so long ago, and is therefore irrelevant to our lives. This may be a preemptive rebuttal to those who question why such a dark play should be put on, but if the production is as good as this one often gets, the scene is largely beside the point.

When the story settles in on Hecuba, Queen of Troy (June Carryl), who portrays her fallen woman as an emblem of pained and stoic dignity, and her coterie of female Trojan royalty (Mariko Oka, Crystal Sershen, Cynthia Mance, Maria Christina Benthall, Reha Zemani and Amelia Rose) we slide into the literary-liturgical world of a theatrical prayer. Poor Andromache (Rose), the deranged wife of slain Hector, doesn’t comprehend the dire ramifications of her surrendering her infant boy, who provides her only purpose in life, to Archaean envoy Talthybius (Troy Dunn). This is a scene plucked from Euripides, and it’s as powerful now as it’s been through the ages, thanks in large part to Rose’s flittering, bewildered, widowed queen, inflated with self-importance. You’d want to slap her for her bloated and unearned sense of entitlement were she not clutching the handle of the insane asylum’s door.

It’s the kind of scene that needs no explanation, but Duncombe has added plenty of that as well — not about Andromoche in particular but about the state of the world in general. Frequently, such explications are pedantic and a disservice to Duncombe’s many wonderful scenes that play themselves out between the lines. His model may be Bertolt Brecht, who loves to explain and ruminate upon his parables. But this is no parable; it’s an epic. And what this is about is as clear as the black smoke of war.

The play’s strongest scene concerns Helen of Troy (Alisha Nichols, like a generic blond stripper, pouty lips, playing dumb but rat-smart), returning to her furious husband, Menelaus (Galvin at his best — a seething volcano of curses and spite), whom she abandoned for Paris, thereby provoking the brother of her cuckolded husband to launch 1,000 ships, and the decades-long war.

She’s now home, eyes-a-flutter, apologizing. Does Menelaus take the bait? He just said he wanted her torn apart by tanks in a slow and agonizing death. But sex toys like Helen have their power, too. This may be the point of Michel’s use of nudity throughout the production.

In A Mabou Mines’ Dollhouse, director Lee Breuer had Maude Phillips’ Nora strip off in his adaptation of Ibsen’s anthem to feminism, but she also removed a flowing wig, so that, in the flesh, she was bald. That image of a woman finding herself in a world of masquerade balls was nakedness rather than nudity.

For her Trojan Women, Michel has her women costumed in froufrou dresses and heels, and one hand gloved to the elbow. When lithe Mariko Oka strips down to everything but the glove and little white boots, it’s an image of both defiance and erotic seduction in the same gesture, of sexual vulnerability. Whether that’s an also an image of power is a question laced with ambiguity. There’s no question, however, that the flesh keeps everyone paying attention. Perhaps this dovetails into Duncombe’s parody of TV news, and of a voyeuristic culture imploding before our eyes.

With all its ambiguities and the sometimes wobbly tones, this admirable production demands respect. It’s a work-in-progress worth investigating.

Julie Hébert’s family dramaTree, set in Chicago’s South Side around 2000, tells the story of a now demented African-American woman named Jessalyn Price (Sloan Robinson), who lives mostly upstairs, and is cared for by her world-wearied son, Leo (Chuma Gault).

If Duncombe goes overboard with political explications of his macroscopic view, Hébert commits the inverse, having Jessalyn spout oblique lyrical fragments from her withering recollections, imposed upon what’s really a microscopic view of one family, and one long-ago love affair. Through the microscope, however, you can see the larger patterns of the society that shaped their lives, and ours. It too is a portrait of warring clans and their brittle attempts at reconciliation and acceptance.

Into the household wanders a Caucasian interloper from Louisiana, named Didi (Jacquelyn Wright), bereft over the recent death of her father and determined to learn the truth of a possible affair he had with the now-demented woman upstairs. Turns out Leo and Didi may even be siblings. Uh-oh.

And so begins not only a very testy relationship between the family in Chicago, including Leo’s sweet-smart daughter JJ (nicely played by Tessa Thompson), but also gender-ambiguous, smarty-pants Didi.

Another family drama about unearthing secrets? This could be an exercise in tedium, were it played out the way it usually is, with people suddenly confessing with melodramatic flourish to past sins, for no particular reason other than to expiate their own guilt, and the playwright’s tug on the puppet strings.

Not so here. Hébert structures her play as an anthopological dig. When old and difficult truths emerge, they do so from the exigencies of empirical evidence — correspondences that finally emerge, as well as the persistence of Didi, a truth-seeker whose curiosity borders on the belligerent. That’s probably what it takes to get to the heart of anything.

Hébert is a lovely writer, who avoids propelling her drama with glib Gothic parodies, a technique bountifully employed in Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County. The friction here comes from personalities, not presumptions. The play finds its stride through people clashing, even gently, and their conflicting needs. When Jessalyn rambles on, especially near the play’s start, and despite Robinson’s meticulous and endearing performance, under Jessica Kubzansky’s direction, the forced poeticism has the texture of jam on top of honey.

THE TROJAN WOMEN | Adapted by CHARLES DUNCOMBE from the play by EURIPIDES | Presented by CITY GARAGE, 1340½ Fourth St. (alley entrance), Santa Monica | Through February 21 | (310) 319-9939

TREE by JULIE HÉBERT | Presented by ENSEMBLE STUDIO THEATRE–L.A. at [INSIDE] THE FORD, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hlywd. | Through December 13 | (323) 461-3673, FordTheatres.org


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