The tiger is war, but it is also destiny.
In the age of Ulysses, Hector, Paris and Helen, it was the Trojan War. In the age of Giradoux, the French playwright of “Tiger at the Gates,” it was World War II, seething, building, ready to pounce. The current production Sarah Maslin ’14 is more pensive and moody, less pulsing, less fiery, but Giradoux’s anachronistic endeavor has never been a play that aged well.
“Tiger at the Gates” is difficult because it is both a historical and mythological piece. It recounts the lead-up to the Trojan War as the desperate Trojan prince Hector (Jamie Biondi ’12) attempts to bring about peace for the sake of his family, but it is also about the looming threat of WWII as Giradoux saw it in the 1930s.
The production embraces the play’s French roots by creating a Troy which is more French than Mediterranean, a Parisian flat in the ‘40s. There are playful additions to the set: a wine cart, graffiti on the walls, an onstage mirror reflecting Hector, his wife, Andromache (Zina Ellis ’15), and the audience. The trials of these “ancient” Trojans are reflected (literally) in the trials of the modern world.
Rather than attempting the traditional garb of ancient Greece, costume designer Julia Cortopassi ’13 dresses the royal family in suits, rompers and boots, lending a more modern dimension to the piece. Cassandra (Clio Contogenis ’14) and Hector discuss war over red wine while French hip hop plays in the background – the entire thing has an air of ease about it which conveys an atmosphere of antiquity. Regrettably, the original play is delivered word-for-word, and Maslin’s artistry seems confined by the sentiments of the unchanged script.
But the creative team behind “Tiger” does provide its own commentary on Giradoux’s classic through updated costuming, the contemporary, apartment-style set and Euro-chic music. Hector and Andromache are cast as a straight-laced alternative to their more eccentric family. The hedonistic Helen (Katharine Pitt ’12) never wears shoes; the audacious Paris (Peter Kaufman ’12) sports a black bomber (shades of Danny Zuko) in such an obvious effort to make a statement (Paris is suave! care-free! a womanizer!) that it borders on caricature.
The production highlights precisely what made Giradoux’s writing unique: the political commentary is overshadowed by the struggles of men and women in love. Pitt and Kaufman are the most entertaining of the cast. Their musings on kisses and make-believe are delivered with noticeably more spirit than Biondi’s monologues on war and morality.
There are no classic heroes in “Tiger.” The world has become disillusioned since Homer’s time. There is only Hector – who wearily trades his army uniform for a suit in the first scene and remains haggard and tired throughout the rest of the play. Jesse Kirkland ’12 attempts to play Ulysses with poise, but by the time he appears in that role, he has already played two other characters (loud ones, with no poise) and his turn as the Greek king calls for some suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. Ajax (Noah Bokat-Lindell ’12) has been fully devolved into a brutish, drunken sailor; you get the idea that he is meant to be funny but the image of the great, powerful king as a war-lusty pig is just sad.
The elegantly costumed Pitt charmingly embodies Helen, the most beautiful women in the world — and arguably one of the most difficult roles for any actress to play. Pitt is not the traditional Helen (i.e. a blonde), but she carries the role effortlessly. Whether or not she is the most beautiful woman in the world, she does an admirable job of making you believe she is.
The mood in “Tiger” is private and pensive. The openness of the set design creates a sense of intimate of conversation; we are getting to know the Trojans, seeing them as people rather than myths. Red wine, warm lighting and French radio tunes are perfect complements to a night of bittersweet reflection on how little the world has changed since Paris stole Helen and Ulysses came to bring her back.