You think you have problems? You don’t have problems. “The Trojan Women” have problems.
If it’s perspective you’re after, you can’t beat a Greek tragedy. And few Greek tragedies are more gut-wrenching or woe-stricken than “The Trojan Women,” a harrowing one-act adaptation of Euripedes’ play that opened March 28 in a co-production between Ujima Theatre Company and Buffalo Public Theatre.
The production marks the return of Lorna C. Hill to the TheatreLoft stage after a long absence in the role of Hecuba, the great Trojan “queen of grief” whose poetic lamentations about her cruel fate presage the suffering of millions of women affected by war throughout the centuries.
Hill’s performance, as focused and deeply felt as anyone could hope, would be reason enough to compel audiences to attend the show. That her riveting appearance is augmented by talents such as Shantinna Moore as the raving Cassandra, Roosevelt Tidwell III as Poseidon and Diane Curley as Helen makes this a must-see for fans of classical theater.
The play is set in the aftermath of the Trojan War, after all the men of the city have been killed and the women are about to be shipped into slavery by the marauding Greeks. This production uses an excellent, straightforward translation by Nicholas Rudall.
The play, co-directed by Kelli Bocock-Natale and her husband, Joseph Natale, gets off to a bit of a creaky start after Poseidon (Tidwell) convincingly sets the bleak scene. But upon Hecuba’s awakening after a terror-stricken slumber and especially after Cassandra’s wild-eyed raving about her planned revenge, the pace picks up and we are off and running.
Aside from two key moments of action, the play is essentially one soul-shattering scream of despair. In the aftermath of the war, facing both the death of their husbands and the prospect of living out the rest of their lives in sexual or domestic slavery, these Trojan women are powerless to do anything but lament their loss and curse the Greek armies that inflicted it. And curse they do.
Nowhere do those lamentations and curses have more power than in Hecuba’s mouth. As the widowed queen, Hill careens violently from compassion for her fellow women and poisonous loathing for her captors.
“My dear,” she says to one of her fellow survivors with all the sweetness she can muster, “you must steel your heart for pain.” Not a moment later she is launching venomous attacks at the Greek soldiers holding her and her fellow women captive.
One of the many highlights of the show came during an unexpectedly humorous scene in which the Spartan king Menelaus sits in judgment of his wife Helen, whose fabled beauty was the impetus for the bloody war. In a devilishly good performance as Helen, Curley delivers a slithering speech about her innocence, begging Menelaus to take mercy on her.
Hecuba isn’t buying it. During a cross-examination that is part classical drama, part “My Cousin Vinny,” Hecuba eviscerates Helen with the skill of a veteran prosecutor. At one point, Hecuba kicks the trail of Helen’s white dress out of the way with such withering disdain that you almost feel sorry for the face that brought a thousand miseries upon Troy.
Another scene in which Greek soldiers tear Hecuba’s grandson from the arms of her daughter-in-law to be thrown from Troy’s highest tower is almost unbearable to watch. Knowing the personal struggles Hill is drawing on for the role (she lost her young grandson in 2009) turned it into one of the more heart-wrenching dramatic moments I’ve seen on a local stage.
Bocock-Natale, known for creating compelling physical theater out of simple materials and movements, has left an unmistakable mark on this production. In the iconography she created for the show, the pieces of red fabric the actors often wield represent not only the flames of burning Troy but also the madness Cassandra and the unbridled rage of the women who have survived the war. A bright red piece of diaphanous cloth dropped by a Greek soldier from atop the city’s highest tower represents the falling body of Hecuba’s innocent grandson.
Despite some pacing problems toward the start and one or two jarring changes in tone, this production brings us face to face with the beating heart an ancient tragedy. It is almost too real.
What: “The Trojan Women”
When: Through April 19
Where: TheatreLoft, 545 Elmwood Ave.
Tickets: $15 to $25
Info: 883-0380 or www.ujimatheatre.org