To see if he could still feel (and to check out the neighborhood north of 120th Street), Emotional Correspondent Dan Flicker took a walk last night to see Columbia Stages’ production of Phoenician Women. Here is his story.
The Phoenician Women prance into their namesake play as a colorful, if occasionally irritating bunch. Giggling and gossiping, these six young women have been making their merry way to the temple at Delphi, excited by the prospect of a religious life, when they inadvertently pass through the city of Thebes. They expect a warm welcome, a room for the night, and perhaps some directions; instead they find themselves in the midst of a war that threatens city, family, and morality alike.
Such is the premise of Phoenician Women, Euripides’ lesser-known rendition of the Oedipus Cycle. The play is fast and sometimes even fragmented: as Oedipus and Iocasta’s genetically confused sons fight mercilessly over the rightful kingship of Thebes, many different characters find themselves facing undue hardship—including the Phoenician Women themselves, who take the role of the Chorus—and Euripides turns his focus towards each in turn at a blistering pace. Given the difficulty of the work, director Karin Coonrod may very well have embarked on the task of adapting it for the Columbia MFA Class of 2010 with some trepidation. But between the efforts of the production team and the dynamic of the cast, the production is more than merely watchable: it is a masterpiece.
Set on a nearly bare stage, and with a drab color palette usually washed out in white light, Coonrod lets the language of the play and the choreography of the actors take center stage. Fortunately the collaboratively written translation is electrifying, both timeless and jarringly immediate, and the cast members are nearly all able to shoulder the production’s emotional burden. While the show is cast in the style of traditional Greek drama with its leads, minor roles, and omnipresent Chorus, the actors have essentially made it a company effort: though there are certainly gems of the group—particularly Kelly McCrann’s tortured Iocasta and Jason Martin’s wise but uncertain Kreon—it is their collective presence and indelible unity that lends the show its gravity. Even when one actor is engrossed in monologue, another will augment the scene by plucking a lyre, and the most intensely character-driven moments are interspersed by beautiful and violent dance sequences.
Phoenician Women is a play where the horrors of war are central, and the ethical ambiguities of fraternal conflict permeate the entire production. The boundaries of gender are tossed aside with almost unnerving casualty as the actors thunder about the stage in black combat boots, their military trousers covered by crimped skirts. Similarly, the set—three small wooden boxes, a row of chairs, and an elevated metal cage in which the shamed Oedipus is constantly confined—manages to evoke total chaos with a minimum of visual noise. The production is overall very spare, but as a result it is very streamlined: from the expertly choreographed dances to the periodic use of Greek in the choral odes, the show consistently makes use of an economy of resources, and no feature feels remotely gratuitous or tacked-on.
Though often difficult to stomach, this play—and in particular, this production of the play—is undoubtedly timely. The Phoenician women themselves, a group of bystanders forced to part with their innocence over an alien cause, are not so unlike the civilians of today’s army documentaries (and could have been realized as kindred spirits of the Army Wives of Lifetime fame). Yet today, the entertainment industry seems to have a skewed preoccupation with the roles of these civilians: though they suffer on account of the casualties of war, they suffer magnificently, and we, the audience, are expected to gratuitously seek catharsis in their tears. Coonrod’s Phoenician Women takes a definitive step away from this mindset: it is raw, unromantic, and depicts the conflict between family and country with startling intensity. And lastly, it’s free with CUID. Go see this play while you can—the sting of great tragedy and the sound of combat boots pounding against the wooden floor will resonate for weeks to come. Phoenician Women plays at the Riverside Theatre at 91 Claremont Avenue through next Saturday; check out the Columbia Stages website for more information.