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The Greeks Were Much More Open-Minded

April 23, 2008

My editor at SF Weekly didn't approve of the second version of a review I wrote about a production of Ellen McLaughlin's The Trojan Women at Aurora Theatre. He decided to go with the first version, which appears in the paper today, on the grounds that my re-written essay, with its London-focused introduction and conclusion "lacks relevance to a San Fran audience" and "seemed forced and tacked on."

For the published version, follow this link. (Scroll way down the page to find the "stage" section.)

I think I like the new version better though, so I thought I'd post it here:

Recently, the London authorities announced the names of six artists shortlisted for the chance to create a new work of art for one of the city's key landmarks, Trafalgar Square. With its central location, grand fountains and imposing statue of Admiral Nelson atop a 151-foot column flanked by four stately-looking bronze lions, the Square pays tribute to one of the U.K.'s most decisive military victories - the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805. One of the finalists in the competition, Jeremy Deller, is causing controversy for his proposal to put a real car wrecked in the Iraq War on a plinth in the Square. Entitled "The Spoils of War (Memorial for an Unknown Civilian)" Deller's piece of public art, if selected, would doubtless give all of London pause for thought for its sobering message about the monstrous effects of conflict on civilians.

Playwright Ellen McLaughlin similarly hopes to force people leading comfortable lives in the U.S. to pay attention to the plight of citizens caught up in war with The Trojan Women, her contemporary adaptation of a famous anti-war play of the same name written by Ancient Greek playwright Euripides in 415 B.C. Like Euripides play before her, McLaughlin's haunting, hour-long drama takes place directly after the fall of the city of Troy to the Greek army following a decade of fighting prompted by the Trojan prince Paris' kidnapping of the beautiful Spartan queen, Helen. With all of Troy's male population either dead or vanished, the city's women gather infront of their smoldering city at the play's opening to commiserate the unhappy fate that awaits them as slaves or concubines to the Greeks.

Euripides wrote his drama to express his feelings of revulsion at his country's aggressive 416 B.C. campaign against the neutral island state of Melos. McLaughlin originally penned hers in the mid-1990s in response to the plight of refugees displaced by the Balkan conflict. Aurora Theatre's modern-dress, Farsi and Croatian-peppered professional world premiere production (which is based on McLaughlin's rewrite of her play for Fordham University in 2003) aims to be more universal. Directed by Barbara Oliver and set in what looks like a timeless, placeless wasteland, the play's message might equally apply to recent or current conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan or Tibet. The eternality of Aurora's approach underscores a truism about the nature of wars - how they wreak havoc on civilizations no matter when or where they occur. But specificity rather than universality may be what's needed to transform The Trojan Women from being yet another - albeit affecting -- anti-war play to an impactful theatrical event.

McLaughlin's drama distinguishes itself from other works in the anti-war play cannon through its penetrating exploration of the rage and desperation of the victimized Trojans. The characters' helpless anger comes across acutely in the scene where they physically attack Helen, the woman whom they view as the perpetrator of their suffering. In a bold departure from Euripides' text, the chorus throws itself at the Spartan woman, intent on literally ripping the beauty that caused so much ill from her body and face. But despite being brought to her knees, Helen remains bold. Bloody and bruised with her arms tied to a yoke around her neck like a sacrificial beast, the character, played with swaggering pride by actor Nora el Samahy, ought to look like the image of defeat. But el Samahy manages to convey dignity even in her sorry-looking state. Though McLaughlin's decision to give the chorus a physical outlet for its anger against Helen seems gratuitous, it deftly reveals the women's impotent rage.

Profoundly moving performances from the other actors further forces Euripides' ancient tale to resonate across millennia. As portrayed with understated resilience by Carla Spindt, Troy's fallen queen, Hecuba, tries to set an example of strength to her people. Yet she appears exhausted and almost resigned to her fate. As Hecuba's mad daughter Cassandra, Sarah Nealis bristles with nervous energy and lucid-hysterical defiance. "These are the men you fear?" she says, with incredulity. "Pity them!" Hecuba's daughter-in-law, Andromache, meanwhile, quickly becomes the real focus of our pity. The moment when the Greeks force Cassandra to surrender her son Astyanax so that they might put him to death is the most sickening of the play, owing largely to Emilie Talbot's feeling yet unsentimental performance as Cassandra.

Despite the eternal relevance of the story, the savage lyricism of McLaughlin's writing and the power of Aurora's production, it's unnervingly easy to disengage oneself from the events on stage soon after the play ends. The idea that the story could take place at any time and in any place somehow makes them seem remote to an audience living in cushy Northern California in 2008. John Iacovelli's striking set design ought to provide a direct connection between the plight of the Trojan victims and contemporary Bay Area audiences. What appears to be a cluster of massive rusty square metal pipes reminiscent of a sewage plant or a ventilation system in a dilapidated factory, is apparently a reproduction of the Vaillancourt Fountain - a 1971 water sculpture which occupies a space near The Ferry Building at the end of Market Street. The trouble is, short of a strong familiarity with this piece of public art, it's pretty difficult to decipher the play's local setting. I'm not suggesting that the Aurora Theatre should hang a sign saying "This way to the Ferry Building" above the stage, but a program note would be useful. (I only found out about the play's locale when I read about it in one of the local dailies after seeing the show.) By being clearer that the events in The Trojan Women are supposed to unfold neither in some ancient mythical city nor on a random sewage farm, but right here in San Francisco right now, the Aurora Theatre could well make the cruelties of war seem all the more immediate to its audiences.

Immediacy can be problematic, though. Back in London, British art pundits are excited about Deller's Trafalgar Square sculpture plans. Some consider "The Spoils of War" to be the best of the six short-listed works. But the impact of putting an Iraqi civilian's crushed car up on a plinth in one of the most highly trafficked spots of a country that's been responsible for the deaths of so many Iraqis over the past few years, may be too much for Britain's patriotic soul to bare. As a result, Deller's work is unlikely to be realized. "A real destroyed car, from a real war, in the middle of London on a public square that commemorates a famous naval victory?" wrote art journalist Jonathan Jones in The Guardian recently. "Come on, it's not likely."

If Euripides was able to get away with staging The Trojan Women in his home country (and win a major prize at the most renowned Greek drama festival for the play to boot), then Deller's statue ought to see the light of day. The question is, will London's gatekeepers prove themselves to be as open-minded as the Ancient Athenians?


  • Did he really say "San Fran"? I'm aghast. That's strictly reserved for out-of-towners to say to put locals' teeth on edge. San Fran is the new "Frisco."

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At April 23, 2008 at 7:55 AM  

  • I saw the show too, and agree with you. However my playbill lists Emilie Talbot as Andromache, not Cassandra.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At April 24, 2008 at 10:40 PM  

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