Monday, June 2, 2008

Men in Women Are Strong, Too

The Trojan Women receives 3 out of 4 stars from Globe and Mail theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck:

"If the Stratford Shakespeare Festival should ever find itself under attack by ancient Greeks, never fear: The theatre's female company members could easily repel them. The Trojan Women shows just how ferociously strong four of them - Martha Henry, Kelli Fox, Seana McKenna and Yanna McIntosh - can be.

"Euripides' tragedy is set at the end of the Trojan War, after Troy has been destroyed and every last man killed. As director Marti Maraden's production begins, the city's former queen, Hecuba, played by Henry, lies in a heap on the ground. Joint by creaking joint, she slowly raises herself up with a gnarled walking stick to survey the wreckage, the very embodiment of a survivor. With the chorus of other Trojan women, she waits, dignified but furious, to hear what fate awaits each of them. They will be doled out as slaves and mistresses to the Greek victors. And that's if they're lucky.

"Cassandra, Hecuba's daughter and a virgin priestess, is the first to get her sentence and goes crazy upon hearing it: She is to be the concubine of Agamemnon. At first, Fox is a little too la-la-la mad, but she soon works up a righteous anger that has her burning as brightly as the torch she swings at her conquerors.

"Next enters Andromache, widow of the mighty Hector, with her young son Astyanax clinging tightly to her waist. The show's standout, McKenna deep-freezes all vertebrae with her cry upon learning that her son is to be thrown from the top of the city's walls. Her wails are echoed in the ululations of the chorus, which along with their head coverings tenuously link the ancient action to the many modern Middle Eastern tragedies currently unfolding. The chorus's eight members include some powerful emoting (from Severn Thompson, in particular) and weak links (a flat Jane Spidell).

"The final Trojan woman to appear on stage is Helen, who gets hisses from the chorus for setting off this bloody, pointless war by (in this version of the story) being willingly abducted by Paris. An unbowed McIntosh makes a surprisingly strong case that the blame should lie with the gods, though I was not quite convinced her sultry looks could win back her husband, Menelaus. McIntosh pulls a pouty face that could launch 500, maybe 600 ships, but no more.

"Though they don't get star billing in the title, the Greek men deserve their due. Sean Arbuckle, who also stars in Cabaret as Cliff, gave his second wonderful performance of opening week; having seen him stand up to Nazism, we now get to see him just following orders as Talthybius, the Greek herald who reluctantly delivers the increasingly terrible news to the Trojan women. Opening the play with great verve, David W. Keeley is a commanding Poseidon.

"Maraden deserves praise for pulling fabulous performances out of her cast, but her very classic production of this anti-war play lacks visual imagination or much modern resonance. John Pennoyer's design is blandly non-specific. The stage is mostly bare, save for a short length of platform that the gods walk on in the prologue; supposedly it is to lift them above the Earth, but it only makes them look like they're strutting their stuff on a catwalk.

"Poseidon, god of the sea, wears a Second World War-style military uniform, as does Menelaus (Brad Rudy), the king of Sparta, but their subordinate soldiers look like modern commandos adorned with strange, otherworldly camouflage that made me flashback to the Lord of the Rings musical.

"The women of Troy, meanwhile, are dressed as timeless refugees, but their cloaks have a futuristic scaly sheen and they sport Fraggle haircuts. The general effect is that of a low-budget science-fiction series; the design takes a play full of modern resonances and makes it feel as if it were taking place in another galaxy.

"This Trojan Women may seem particularly dull on account of my having seen just months ago a tremendously showy production at the National Theatre in London directed by stage auteur Katie Mitchell, full of ballroom dancing, explosions, full-frontal nudity and a working elevator. Couldn't understand what the heck was being said for a good chunk of it, but it wasn't boring for a moment.

"It's a cliché to note that Canadian theatre is lacking in exciting, innovative directors, while being blessed with a surfeit of top-notch thespians. But this production is a good illustration of why."

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