The strength of Mary Zimmerman's "Trojan Women" is also its handicap. Beginning with a shock, it continues with a shriek and concludes with a howl. While this utter relentlessness is appropriate to a work about the unstoppability of military destruction, the din it creates is such that almost nothing is actually audible. The problem is not unique to Zimmerman or her company: last year's Medea with Fiona Shaw had a similarly monotonous feel. For those of us accustomed to Shakespeare, who provides comic relief even in the harshest works, the single-mindedness of classic drama is almost indigestible.
Nor does the production provide the relief that might come from artistic approaches outside of the text, such as Zimmerman's usual movement-based storytelling. Though it boasts music composed by Philip Glass as well as arranger Andre Pluess, the music's only noticeable appearance is in the final five minutes-far too late to provide any succor. As a result, as death succeeds death, as Hecuba's mourning for her condemned daughter gives way to Andromache's keening over her condemned son, some door in the brain slams shut. At a certain point there's no sympathy left, and the audience is simply numb.
Yet no doubt that's the point: that no emotion can truly be appropriate to catastrophes like the total destruction of Troy. Sorrow, anger, plans for recovery all mock the desolation that's been wrought. Seen in that light, these 80 intermissionless minutes are a success. They're just the kind of success to which no response is adequate.
The production is set so aptly in the present that the director felt compelled to supply a program note assuring us that she hadn't changed a word either in Seneca's 2000-year-old play or its 20-year-old translation by David Slavitt. Be that as it may, we're nonetheless watching on stage what we've been watching on CNN for the past month. (Troy, after all, was in northwest Turkey, within a few hundred miles of present-day efforts to shock and awe through destruction.) Daniel Ostling's set of broken planes, hidden crevasses and randomly projecting monuments, covered with a carpet of detritus, is one on which it's almost impossible to move without stumbling. Likewise, postwar Troy (or Iraq) is an environment in which it's almost impossible to move without stumbling. Any effort at reconciliation is stymied by the patriotic fervor of victor and vanquished alike. Clad in U.S. Army camouflage as the insatiable Pyrrhus ("We must destroy the village in order to save it"), Kyle Hall has the swagger of a conquering soldier drunk on blood. Frederic Stone's Agamemnon leavens his arrogance with stiffness and anger, suggesting Rumsfeld and Cheney without pushing the parallel over the top.
Ann Whitney plays Hecuba with the simple dignity of despair. Though a last-minute replacement for Caitlin Hart, Whitney occupies the role completely and provides a firm anchor for the others' weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Wendy Robie's portrait of Andromache is exceptionally free of vanity. As she grovels before her enemy, twists and dirties her dress, contorts her face with anguish and dishonesty, we recognize a mother who will do everything to save her son-even when she knows that everything will not be enough. Rebecca Jordan's comic Helen of Troy is well-done, though she arrives too late for the comedy to provide any relief. Elizabeth Reiter says nothing as the sacrificed daughter Polyxena, but sings her sole speech with great poise while standing in a wedding gown marred with the graffito "Whore." A little of that music, though, goes a long way: it's the same style of insistent soprano dirge that accompanies "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" until an impatient character insists that it stop.
This has been the season for the Goodman to up-end our expectations, with a Tennessee Williams play barely recognizable as such and now a Mary Zimmerman show minus the director's characteristic lyricism. Trojan Women isn't beautiful, but neither is its subject. Perhaps it's fitting that the director's approach is to rub the audience's face in it, like that of a dog in its own vomit.
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