Amidst overtones of pop music and undertones of deviance, the Yale Dramat’s performance of French playwright Jean Giraudoux’s “Tiger at the Gates” puts a new, modern twist on a story 3,000 years in the making. Is war, the writer asks, a beautifying factor without which man would not progress, or an ugly blemish on the face of an otherwise pure species? Answers the Dramat (under the direction of Sarah Maslin ’14): to hell with war – let’s make out.
The show opens with world-weary seer Cassandra (Clio Contogenis ’14) as she heralds the inevitability of war to the optimistic Andromache (Zina Ellis ’15), who holds out hope for humanity’s goodness even as her husband Hector (Jamie Biondi ’12), general of the Trojan army, returns from battle feeling that all is bitter and cold. With the war over (which war exactly, no one is sure), Hector is determined to protect peace no matter the cost, for, as he now sees it, fighting is an inglorious display of the callousness of man. But despite Hector’s best efforts, the Trojan peace may be short-lived thanks to Prince Paris (Peter Kaufman ’12), who has kidnapped and slept with the Grecian queen, Helen (Katharine Pitt ’12), a beautiful yet vapid woman who many see as glorious but Hector sees only as a bringer of death. Suffice to say that Helen and Paris’s illicit relationship is not the last viewers will see of romance on the Repertory’s stage in this performance.
Though the archaic war that is their subject matter is indeed meant to represent all times, the Dramat takes things to a level of modernity not usually seen for the piece. Actors and actresses forgo traditional robes and Trojan armor for T-shirts, khakis and business suits, and blasts of rap and rock punctuate meaningful scenes in the show in a way that, while a questionable choice for performance value, brings a play written decades ago into the present quite strikingly.
As for the show’s take on the role of passion in wartime, it’s not an understatement to say that someone walking in at any one of a number of different points during the evening could easily mistake the performance for an adult-themed photo shoot. From Paris’s forceful handling of seemingly masochistic Helen to the highly symbolic sexual frustration of a young Trojan soldier, sex plays just as big a role in “Tiger” as battle.
Though this racy subject matter might confound lesser casts, the Dramat’s actors generally handle the show well. Biondi is unquestionably leader of the pack: five minutes in, he takes the stage – and stays there. For the remainder of the two-hour performance, he rarely leaves for more than thirty seconds. Nevertheless, his energy holds up beautifully. Any dialogue involving him is deep, moving and well executed, driving the performances of other actors.
Ellis’s talent is notable as well. A freshman among seniors, she delivers with confidence and poise, matching (and often exceeding) the ability of others – even though her character is one of the most serious and conflicted in the whole of the work. Ultimately, it is she that manages to convince Greek general Ulysses (Jesse Kirkland ’12) to call of war with Troy. But fate, and the Trojan senate, have other plans. Overcome by their fervor for Helen and their taste for battle, Trojan forces frame and kill a Greek emissary, ruining the peace Hector has strived so long to reach and showing that, just as they are drawn to love, so too are humans drawn to war. Fittingly, the show ends with one final scene of Helen seducing yet another young paramour, just as she has now seduced an entire people into their demise.
Overall, the Dramat treats “Tiger at the Gates” with vision and youth only available on a quick-witted college campus. While some scenes seem overwrought and others downright vulgar, it can’t be denied that the subject matter at hand can do with a little vulgarity. We can only hope that, in love and battle, the Trojans will always remember to stay true to their name and use protection.