WASHINGTON, April 16, 2013 – Georgetown University is wrapping up its season-long “War and Peace” performance series this month in the Davis Performing Arts Center’s Gonda Theatre with Trojan Barbie, an updated riff on a very old play, namely Euripedes’ The Trojan Women. Penned by playwright Christine Evans—who also happens to be the newest addition to GU’s performing arts faculty—Trojan Barbie reimagines Euripedes’ already strange dramatic brew as a kind of time warp in history that unfolds within Debra Kim Sivigny’s imaginative scenic design.
The play’s central action is experienced quite viscerally by a contemporary character, Lotte Jones, who collects and fixes toy dolls for a living. Heading for a vacation voyage whose main destination is the site of ancient Troy, Lotte expects some educational fun with maybe a dollop of romance tossed in. What she gets is more like a trip in a Star Trek holodeck gone horribly wrong.
Trojan Barbie—subtitled A Car-Crash Encounter with Euripides’ Trojan Women—begins and ends in Lotte’s doll shop, with both the shop and its owner serving as a central intelligence and a frame tale surrounding the major, inner story of the Trojan women left behind to suffer the consequences of their city’s catastrophic defeat by the Greeks.
Euripedes’ original play is less drama than dirge, as the Trojan women—both deposed royalty as well as the commoners who form the chorus—mourn past, present, and future atrocities inflicted on both themselves and what’s left of their families by the triumphant Greeks. There’s a lot to mourn, too. And a lot to reflect upon. But Euripedes doesn’t leave a contemporary playwright a lot of plot to deal with, so any remake has its work cut out for it.
Evans’ creative but uneven solution to the dilemma is to create something that novelists might call “magic realism”—people, events, and an entire world that’s not logical in a literal sense but somehow can hang together in the mind. The vacationing Lotte is enveloped, without warning, into the very real endgame of the Trojan War. But somehow, this happens in contemporary Iraq and the vengeful Greeks have morphed into a batch of conflicted but still thuggish American GIs.
The idea, one supposes, is to put a new twist on Euripedes likely original point: all war is ultimately damaging. And after its “heroes” depart, the women are left to suffer the consequences and pick up the pieces of whatever happens to be left.
The problem is, after Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the notion, metaphorical or otherwise, that the Third World would be a much better place without the intervention of American barbarians has become more tiresome and less avant-garde over the last fifty years. Iran’s tyrranical mullahs and/or their Syrian puppets, the murderously amoral Assads, might have been more appropriate representatives of contemporary military savagery, particularly with regard to the brutal treatment of women. But this perhaps startling notion has yet to occur, apparently, to any living playwright, so the approach is hardly atypical.
At any rate, aside from the worn out contemporary military meme, Evans does much to imbue the original dramatic vehicle with life and even with a little fun by putting considerable bounce into a few of her characters.
Young, nutty “Polly X” is played to the hilt by Zoë Lillian. She’s a delight, whether she’s dishing on her latest interpretation of anti-bourgeois sculpture or rebelling against the sheer tediousness of the older women around her. We care for her, and dread her untimely and inevitable end, even as she herself remains forever innocent and clueless, a youthful bundle of energy slotted as the heroine of a gruesome wartime snuff film before she’s had her chance to blossom.
Another point of light in this production is Alexandra Waldon, whose over-the-top and spot-on turn as glamor queen Helen lends a much-needed dose of comedy to an otherwise gloomy post-disaster scene.
Other cast members who sparkled on opening night include Betsy Helmer whose virtually insane but always prescient Cassandra brought an almost paranormal sense to the stage; and Molly Roach, whose tragic Andromache brought home the essence of this play on an emotional level.
Less effective, surprisingly, was Elisabeth Lewis Corley as the older Hecuba, widow of Trojan King Priam. Hecuba, as the eldest female and former Queen of Troy, functions something like an earth-mother in this ensemble, descending further into depression and rage as each member of her large family is either enslaved or dispatched. It’s a tough role to begin with, but Corley—the only Equity member in this production—seemed to play it all on one note, at least on opening night.
Appropriately bewildered, outraged, and amazed, Alice Neave’s Lottie proved an interesting interpolation into a series of events out of sequence and out of control. Yet Neave still seemed a bit unsure of herself on opening night.
The deft, imaginative direction of Maya E. Roth kept the pace and dynamism of this production humming even at points when it wanted to drag. Frank Labovitz’ eclectic but appropriate costume designs cleverly aided the production’s time and space shifts, and the imaginative lighting and sound design by Robbie Hayes and Diane Giangreco respectively also greatly amplified the intensity of the production.
All in all, Trojan Barbie is a mixed bag, although an interesting one. It certainly brings an often startling and thoughtful new look to a difficult though much-admired ancient drama. The human-lives-as-broken-dolls motif has much to recommend it in our own era where vengeful gods once again seem chronically out of control across the globe, with or without the assistance of America’s armed forces.
Fans of the classics will likely enjoy this one as will those who firmly hold to certain political and moral points of view. Theater goers who prefer deeper character development with less predictable moral equivalency, however, may find Trojan Barbie somewhat less congenial.
Rating: * ½ (One and one-half stars.)
Trojan Barbie runs through April 20 at the Gonda Theatre on the main campus of Georgetown University, 37th and O Sts. NW in Washington DC. Reasonably priced tickets run from $8-18. Call 202-687-2787 for details or visit performingarts.georgetown.edu.
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