Although he doesn’t often review theatrical performances, Editor Finn Klauber felt it his responsibility to release a measured review of a recent performance of Seneca’s Troades, which will have two final showings tomorrow afternoon and evening.
Syncretizing the performance of a Classical tragedy with artistic elements reminiscent of modernity is no small challenge. As key imagery from the Classical world appears strange, at best, or unplaceable and alien, at worst, director Yujhán Claros of the Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama Group would struggle to construct any performance drawn from Greek or Latin drama. These issues are compounded doubly given the source material for Claros’ tragedy—that is, Seneca’s Troades, or Trojan Women in English, offers little concrete textual support for stage direction or characterization. Whether Seneca’s Trojan Women was even written with explicit performance in mind remains an unanswered question. Entering the Minor Latham Playhouse, my mind fluttered with the artistic possibilities which the Trojan Women presented, hoping Claros’ vision would offer new methods of envisioning the characters whom appear in Columbia’s Core and have been transformed into cultural archetypes.
Seneca’s Trojan Women deserves a word of caution for any viewers unfamiliar with the tale of the victorious Greeks and downtrodden Trojans between the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer and the Aeneid of Vergil. Following the brutal sacking of Troy utilizing the infamous Trojan Horse, all that remains of the city are burning buildings and dejected women and children. The heroes of old—Achilles, Hector, Priam, and Ajax—are all dead or, in the case of Ulysses, Pyrrhus, and Agamemnon, disgraced with the brutal rape of “the pillar of Asia.” The remnants of the once great people are a crowd of mourning women and children, deprived of their husbands, fathers, and birthright. This is especially apparent in the case of Hector’s remaining family, as Hecuba, Priam’s wife, and Andromache, Hector’s wife, must see to a depressed throng of Trojan women as they await their division among the Greeks for enslavement, which is often sexual in nature. This final enslavement is slow and painful, though, as the Greeks are marooned in the Troad until the winds pick up again—a familiar issue for the Greeks, and one which Agamemnon will especially suffer for. This situation intensifies once the ghost of Achilles (supposedly) appears, demanding the sacrifice of Polyxena, a surviving daughter of Priam and Hecuba, and Astyanax, the young child of Hector and Andromache. If you expect the Greek “heroes” to do anything except viciously murder a defenseless boy and girl, to nominally appease the shades of Achilles and dissolve the bonds holding the Greek fleet at bay, then this is the wrong drama for you.
Almost immediately, Claros demonstrates the moral depravities forming the basis for the Trojan Women. The members of the Chorus, garbed in bulky grey sweatpants and hoodies, covered in ashen black shawls pulled over heads and faces, bemoan the fate of Priam and Troy, led in the beating of their chests by the widowed Hecuba, alternatively played by Paula Gaither and Lauren Nguyen. The stage reflects this sensation of abrupt hopelessness, as fiery lighting glinted off hanging mesh wire and an elevated wooden platform, off of which hung a sign with stark black and white letters reading, “οὐ θεὸς εἰ μὴ ὁ Θεός”—a chilling reference to ISIS/Daesh, whose flag translates similarly to “No god but Allah (God).” At center stage lies the tomb of Hector, whose presence—or lack thereof—reverberates through the central conflict of the Trojan Women.
This communal mourning is literally kicked away by the Greek messenger Taltyhbius, portrayed by Eric Hensley. Despite Hensley’s nasty and brutish admonition of the Trojan women, his narration of Achilles’ return from the dead adopts a carefully constructed and artificial demeanour, as when he emulates Achilles’ booming demands in a faux-serious tone, belying the underlying question of whether Hensley’s Talthybius is actually telling the truth through his monologue. The introduction of Achilles’ demands transitions into my favourite portion of the play (and text), when Achilles’ wrathful son Pyrrhus verbally dukes it out with the nominal leader of the Greek host, Agamemnon. The dress of Pyrrhus, as portrayed by Pedro Pistoso, reflects the teenage wrath of the fiery character, as Pistoso wears a fiery motocross helmet and wields a lacrosse stick as his sword. Next to Sammie Smith’s Agamemnon, garbed in an ill-fitting 80’s power suit, an emblazoned pipe, and a golden mask, Pyrrhus’ arguments are both amplified and suppressed, as his arguments against Agamemnon’s inert luxury (remember Agamemnon’s conflict with Achilles?) are contextualized by the tones and vestments of each character. Pyrrhus’ angsty jabs at Agamemnon are directed towards the audience, whereas Agamemnon’s condescension only has time for Pyrrhus.
To resolve their argument, Smith calls for the entrance of the Greek seer Calchas, portrayed by Sarah Johnson. Johnson, who slides around the stage appearing like an evil witch à la Disney’s Ursula, reveals in a sickly sweet tone that Astyanax and Polyxena, played by Emily Conlogue, are to be sacrificed to appease the shades of Achilles. The choice to portray Calchas in such an overtly slimy manner stands out among Claros’ directorial decisions in the play, conspicuously suggesting that these sacrifices are not entirely to be trusted as truthful. The range of verbal tones presented at this point in the play is truly impressive, given the production’s sole use of Latin. Even without the supertitles, which are arranged by Eduardo Rosadio, Brett Silverstein, and Peter Rachofsky, the inclination of each actor is highly characterized by both overt and covert changes in intonation and posture. When Pyrrhus threatens Agamemnon’s life, Smith’s Agamemnon, as is apparent even without the supertitles, only coolly bites back, clearly unthreatened by Pyrrhus’ rage.
The Chorus of Trojan Women, who lead the transition into the next fateful scene between Elizabeth McNamara’s Andromache and Nathaniel Marrinson’s Ulysses, demonstrate these minute details just as well. Supported by an eclectic score, composed by Ediz Ozelkan, of drums punctuated by electric tones, and a mournful choreography, arranged by Sarah Esser, the Chorus flows across the stage, transitioning from upstart pride to intense grief and puzzlement to rage and anger focused by Nguyen’s Hecuba. A sole figure in brilliant red stands out amongst the black shades as well, a figure later revealed to be poor Polyxena. The mourning transitions into the emotional climax of the tragedy, as McNamara’s Andromache, whom Costume Designer Larry Wolfe depicts in cerulean blue with a sparkling red sash and a golden diadem, plans with Allegra Forbes’ Senex to stash away baby Astyanax (represented as a doll at this point) in Hector’s tomb. Yet Astyanax’s concealment lasts only for a short while before Marrinson’s Ulysses, garbed in a slim and fashionable suit punctuated with golden accoutrements, arrives to snatch away the last hope of the Trojans.
Ulysses, an oft derided character in the Roman world for his guiles and tricks, appears as slimily and uncaring as his reputation bemoans. Slowly toying with Andromache’s grief, doubting her claim that Asytanax has died already in the sack of Troy, Ulysses threatens immediately to destroy the tomb of Hector if Asytanax truly is dead. Faced with the loss of Hector’s tomb and Astyanax on one hand, and the murder of Astyanax by Ulysses on the other, McNamara embodies the double tension which chews at her mind. Finally prodded over the edge by Marrinson, McNamara recalls Astyanax (now played by Pedro Pistoso) and tenderly wishes goodbye before Ulysses rips the child from her embrace.
The penultimate scene presents literary icon Helen, portrayed by Rachel Herzog, in perhaps her most dejected state. Absconded to Troy and married to a (dead) man universally despised, she is the sole cause of this conflict—a fact which Herzog’s Helen definitively recognizes. With her soiled white dress, high heels, and stylish purse, Herzog appears as little less than a haunted Versace bride—an apt depiction for the twice-married destroyer of cities. Bemoaning the role the Greeks assign to her, to bring Polyxena to her sacrifice, Helen presents the occasion as the wedding of Polyxena to Pyrrhus, dejectedly and ironically praising Polyxena’s prospects away from the turmoil of this world. As Helen dresses the silent girl, Nguyen’s Hecuba explodes at the Greek, manically cursing her and her fellow Danaans as the old wife of Priam slowly dies inside.
The final scene does little to enthuse an already depressed audience, as the Messenger, portrayed by Victoria Schmidt-Scheuber, recalls the full sacrifice of Astyanax and Polyxena to the Chorus while the characters themselves enact the scenes in the style of a flashback. Astyanax’s plunge from the top of Troy’s last remaining tower even sickens the heartless Ulysses while Polyxena’s proud reaction to being sacrificed shocks the Greeks and Trojans alike. The depressing tale ends as Hecuba, somehow revitalized after taking ill in the previous scene, alludes to the destruction and scattering of the Greek fleet—the event which drives the events of Homer’s Odyssey.
To hold up Claros’ Troades as anything but a complex jumble of physical and emotional turmoil would be demeaning to the production as a whole. Nominally focused on the condition of the cast-down Trojan women, the Trojan Women in fact explores so much more. Where is the limit between what is right and what is just? What, really, is the conqueror entitled to? Did Troy really reside in Hector, or do the assembled crowd of Trojan women and children preserve dreams of Trojan revival? The performance even casts shadows forward, as the character of Agamemnon in Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Homer’s Odyssey might appear more or less criminal depending upon your interpretation of Smith’s character. For any student interested in a surprisingly modern characterization of figures thrust upon them throughout their time at Columbia, I cannot recommend seeing Claros’ tragedy more highly.
Tickets for the final two showings, at 2 PM and 8 PM tomorrow, can be purchased here.
Three Trojan women via Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama Group