The Many Women of Troy, Pallas Theatre Collective

Not too long ago, I was studying Euripides' Trojan Women in grad school, pondering the nature of its particular form of tragedy for my exams. I've been fascinated by the characters of classical drama and myth since I was a child, and thus part of my task was to tamp down my enthusiasm at seeing the familiar faces in the text and evaluate them and the mode of their tragedy coolly and rationally. Trojan Women is an episodic series of scenes of suffering, relentlessly plunging onward as Hecuba grieves and Cassandra, Andromache, Astyanax, and even Helen are taken away, one by one. Terrible and tragic, yes; kind of sort of repetitive and prey to wallowing in deserved self-pity, also yes. The story never really goes anywhere, you see, and while I feel slightly scandalized by critiquing one of the works that first defined our very concept of a canon of Western literature, the point stands. Flawed or perfect, however, as long as humanity continues to willfully provide such ample tragedy for each others' lives, we'll probably keep turning to Euripides.

Why then, should we turn to The Many Women of Troy, the Pallas Theatre Collective's new take on a story that was already ancient history when Euripides wrote his play? For one thing, we gain a hell of a lot of perspective that just wasn't available in the fifth century BC. Apollo cursed/blessed Cassandra to see the future, but to never be believed, and while it's one thing to see her prophetize on the immediate futures of herself and her kinswomen, there's a thrill in watching her have 2500 more years of history to pull from. By increasing the breadth of her visions beyond her mythic history, we also start to see where this show is going.

Like Cassandra herself, The Many Women of Troy isn't moored to any one place or time. This production, with book and lyrics by Michael John Boynton and music by Brian Allan Hobbs, takes its cast of characters and reduces them to tropes as it simultaneously expands them to fill a host of new contexts. Cassandra (Maggie Donovon) becomes the one who sees and warns; Hecuba (Charlotte Di Gregorio), the one who incites action; Andromache (Tracy Haupt), the one who waits; Polyxena (Juliette Ebert), the one who is silent or silenced; and Helen (Ellis Greer), the one who will climb and who will take. With these basic character types in place, the audience sees the women of Troy reconfigured for more than a dozen new times and places in a series of short episodes and songs. In the way that the last hundred years of Shakespearean directors have set the Bard's plays in new settings to illuminate different themes, Women moves from place to place, playing the game of 'who will they become.' Hecuba incites a new generation of violence between Catholics and Protestants from her grief following the Battle of the Boyne. Andromache, caught in a holding pattern of waiting and worrying in her neat suburban home, sees her world crumble when her husband doesn't return from the Korean War.

Some of the most interesting moments in the piece concern Polyxena and Helen. In Euripides' version of events, Polyxena has been sacrificed at the grave of Achilles, one more loss in Hecuba's mounting griefs. Women finds several ways to give Polyxena her voice (including dance), but of these, I was most intrigued by the first. Seated in a guidance counselor's office in the wake of a familiar massacre, Polyxena's silence is that of adolescence, of the ordinary soul marginalized by peers and family. Helen, here categorized largely by her ambition, is often presented in a negative light in her appearances, whether praising the questionable tactics of William Randolph Hearst as a kindred spirit or happily siding herself with several other corrupt powers and regimes across history. Her final scene, listed in the program as taking place at "a pop rock concert in Hell," is one of the strongest in the evening; like the best moments in this production, it allows the audience to shift its perspective and see the familiar character in a new (here, shocking) light in a way that nevertheless feels instantly right and recognizable.

I've spent a lot of time speaking of the piece itself and less about the production, directed by Tracey Elaine Chessum, who does great work with the small cast, many of whom are still in their undergraduate years. Despite the generally strong work of the cast, I do wish there had been a greater range of ages on stage- for a piece that strives to give voice to a wide spectrum of women throughout history, it would be nice to see a wider diversity represented on stage. The pacing is kept tight throughout the show- although two hours without an interval could have dragged in other hands, the audience's attention rarely wandered.

If I haven't lingered overlong on the details of the show, it's because they're not what I've been pondering for the last two days. I've kept evaluating the answers the writers found for 'Who would they become?', and then likewise thinking about my own responses to those scenes. There's a lot of cleverness in the piece (and not the cloying kind), and its ability to quickly let its audience meet and understand each new iteration of the characters is fantastic. The issue that has been my chief concern, however, is the ultimate answer the piece gives to our neverending cycle of violence and tragedy; The Many Women of Troy reaches towards the possibility of hope in a way that I've been struggling with since the performance ended. Hope and the belief in a better tomorrow is one that was rejected by Euripides as a perilous falsehood; having watched two hours that show how we have never yet escaped the tragic cycle we inflict upon each other, it's hard to buy into a miraculous happy ending. Women of Troy impressed me with its acknowledgement of the complexity of the questions it asked, and perhaps it's the neatness of its ending that dismays me.

Or maybe I'm just a cynic- who can say. I do know that there's a lot to be excited about in this piece, and it's a pity that I attended its final performance as part of the 2011 Capital Fringe Festival. I'm glad to see that the PTC hasn't been resting easy with this piece- it deserves the hard work that's been put into it within the last year at workshops and in Los Angeles for the Hollywood Fringe. This is the sort of production that makes me want to discuss it, to hammer out all the bits that were brilliant and all the bits that I have a beef with. I went into my bookshelves and found my copy of The Trojan Women and reread it last night. There are songs from the show that I'm itching to hear again. It's a show that I hope many of you got to see during its brief run in DC, and that I'm hoping you'll get another shot at in the future. It's a show that provokes discussion, and that's my favorite kind of theatre.


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