We’re Not in Troy Anymore, But it Feels Familiar

Bringing Troy into the modern day.
Bringing Troy into the modern day. // Jason Liu

“The Trojan Women” is what translator Alan Shapiro has called the “purest” of Euripides’ tragedies, touching on the hardships of war-ravaged Trojan women whose husbands have been slain and who are about to be enslaved by the invading Greeks. It is an unflinching treatment of suffering and grief.

Caroline Bird, a British playwright and poet, adapted Euripides’ play a couple of years ago and brings us into the cramped confines of a wartime maternity ward–cum prison, where Hecuba (Chamonix Adams Porter ’15) and the chorus (Jill Carrera ’17) cope with the asperities of war. The shared imprisonment of the chorus and Hecuba is the crux of the drama and its greatest departure from the original: Bird’s chorus is a commoner without a name who was raped, whose husband was killed and whose fetus faces the prospect of execution or abduction at the hands of the Achaeans. She is a full-fledged character, not just a commentator. The play, then, is as much about the friction between a queen and her subject as it is about the cruelties of war.

The director, Noam Shapiro (’15) complements this modern transposition with a spare, minimalist and contemporary staging. There are no curtains. As we enter, we see the women of the play, dirty and bedraggled, clutching at their newborns or their sheets. We are immediately thrust into a modern house of horrors, a jail-like hospital rigged out with greenish fluorescent light, a water cooler and a Purell dispenser. We’ve a feeling we’re not in Troy anymore.

But even as the play dislocates us from Troy, it does not situate us in any specific historical context (e.g. Darfur, the Balkans). This non-specificity poses problems: the women seem placeholders for victims of war rather than sufferers of a particular conflict, groundless ciphers untethered from history.

Thanks to talented choices in light, costume and stage design, however, some of the transposition of ancient material to a modern setting is quite seamless. The industrial, then blood-colored lighting subtly gives us the heaviness and distance that a Grecian mask might; the dirtied hospital gowns are modern-day tunics. These technical touches delight and draw us in.

Other times the transposition runs into obstacles. Multimedia video clips of the gods, who commentate like news anchors on the action, have the unfortunate, faint ring of Stanley Tucci as host of “The Hunger Games.”

After the Thursday U.S. premiere of the play at Morse Crescent Theater, the play’s dramaturg Eve Houghton ’17 held a Q&A discussion with several of the actors, Professor Joe Fischel and Shapiro. The panel discussed some of the political motivations governing the production. Shapiro hearkened to Toni Morrison’s prescription that all art be political. He said, “I wanted to challenge the audience to really engage in discussion. We want you to do something.”

On that front, the production succeeds admirably. The play must be accepted as something entire unto itself, a political and social dialectic that has little to do with Euripides’ original creation. The premise of the action — war and the woe of the vanquished — may be the same, but we are prompted with different questions. Euripides asks us, “What is it like to suffer? What is it like to grieve for dead husbands, dead sons?” Bird’s play asks: “How does class influence the experience of war victims? Are Queen Hecuba’s noble, grief-stricken orations meaningful when the chorus has suffered the same and received no recognition?” The chorus constantly heckles from the metal-frame bed to which she is cuffed, deriding the Hecubas of the world for their tragic complexes and royal vanity in light of these social issues.

The play benefits from various visitors who interrupt the conversation between Hecuba and the chorus. Andromache (Lizzy Emanuel ’17), fighting to keep her composure in the midst of terrible grief, lends the play some of the grounding it lacks elsewhere. Cassandra, beautifully played as a madwoman by Anya Markowitz ’17, gives us several memorable images. When she bounces up and down on the springless metal-frame bed, we witness an extreme psychosis born of suffering, put in high relief by the quieter mourning of her mother, Hecuba. Cassandra’s fits of mad prophesying — followed by occasional cursing and tremors — offer us some of the sublimest moments of the play.

Viewers may feel jostled by some of the directorial choices that have been made. We watch several minutes of full-frontal nudity, as well as some pretty gruesome props. These apparently grisly choices justify themselves in the last scene, an addition by Yalies to Bird’s script. Ski-masked men come into the holding cell and take away the women; then they make the beds, mop the blood of the floors and spray Lysol in the room. We are left with a scene of awful sanitation, a quiet but effective reminder of the erasability of wartime atrocities.

Correction, March 28: a previous version of this article stated that this play was supported by the Dramat. In fact, the Dramat was not involved in its production.

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