The Trojan Women
Actors Bridge Ensemble
Through May 8
at the Neuhoff Site
Maybejust maybewe're not in Kansas anymore. Actors Bridge Ensemble's new production of Euripides' The Trojan Women is a thoughtfully imaginative reinvention of the classic Greek drama, with a level of urban brash and sophistication on par with theater in larger East Coast cities. Actors Bridge has forged a hard-bitten chunk of commentary on the effect of war's devastation, and with all that's going on in the world today, it's nigh impossible not to connect the dots between the semi-dilapidated environs of the Neuhoff Site, where director Bill Feehely's heady and compellingly serious drama is played out, and present-day Iraq.
The adaptation of the ages-old script was completed by Feehely, Vali Forrister and Joe Keenan. While it's easy to accept the writing team's disclaimer that the play's locale is "anywhere," it's hard not to see the parallels: The put-upon Trojan women are Iraqis; their Greek conquerors are the U.S. Yet the script adroitly avoids overstating this point. We ponderbut the play doesn't pander. The rest is left up to a mostly excellent cast, primarily the women, who work a wide range of emotions to consistently good effect, ultimately confirming what General Sherman once said so succinctly: "War is hell."
The adapters may not have been totally successful in melding modern perceptions and imagery with the hand-wringing outbursts of Euripides' war-torn widows, though there doesn't appear to have been a conscious attempt to be precisely consistent with any imposed formula, either. Regardless, the production's artfulness and ambition more than make up for any shortcomings. We almost forget that we're sitting in a concrete-and-brick warehouse, which has been refined enough to make it a dream space for "guerrilla theater"defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "Dramatization of social and political issues, usually enacted outside, as on the street or in a park."
An opening voiceover that conjures the spirit of a BBC News segment is soon followed by light flashes and cacophony as soldiers enter, raping and pillaging. The simulated attacks are engrossing, and the stage is set for the native womenstarving and beaten but not yet completely brokento confront the invaders.
"Life is hope," says defeated Trojan Queen Hecuba, played with nurturant grace by Wesley Paine. She has a tough time convincing her comrades in arms, in particular defiant, acid-tongued daughter Cassandra (Jenny Littleton) and grieving daughter-in-law Andromache (Forrister), who has lost her husband in battle and will have her son torn from her bosom and sacrificed before the evening is over.
The presentation of Littleton's character offers a good example of the production's erratic but still effective mix of performance styles. After a non sequitur music-hall introduction, Littleton takes the stage and, accompanied by the voices of an excellent chorus, croons a doo-wop number. Along the way, she takes the commanding Greek officer Talthybius (Jeff Lewis) down a few pegs, then exits with a flourish, her remarkable tour de force completed.
Forrister, on the other hand, gives us a reading closer to the ancient wailing and gnashing of teeth. She helps to drive home the horror of it all with some major-league emoting. Erica Rowlett is the other key female character, Helen, the woman whose face launched a thousand ships and incited the Trojan War. Rowlett is pretty and competently plays her comparatively passive role, which could be seen as metaphor for the presence of weapons of mass destruction.
The fine chorus of seven women is led by Pru Clearwater, who, besides possessing a distinct, almost otherworldly singing voice, collaborated on musical motifs (some Middle Eastern-influenced) with Feehely and musical director Timothy O. Fudge. Emma Foxall and choreographer Deanne Collins also make notable use of their choral stage time.
The male actors somewhat disappoint, their shortcomings more noticeable when pitted against the higher quality of the women's work. Craig Sawyer as Spartan King Menelaus is at least adequate for his relatively brief task. Lewis, in effect the spokesman for marauding armies everywhere, brings a pertinent good cop/bad cop sensibility to his performance. "Those who give the orders seldom see the results," he mutters to Hecuba with unconvincing justification. With his Jim Belushi-like swagger and restrained staccato delivery, Lewiswho's had better local stage success in musicals and colloquial contemporary faregives us a characterization that is on the right track in spirit but falls short in power, execution and clarity.
Young Jackson Collins, all of 2 years old, makes a brief appearance as Andromache's son, Astyanax. He comports himself quite well.
Rock-solid ensemble performances and a rock-hard, in-your-face backdrop set this production apart from typical commercial fare. The Trojan Women represents a serious step forward for Nashville's indigenous theater scene.
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