Blues and the Abstract Truth

Hey, you'd be bummed out, too: Cast members from Frank Theatre's 'The Women of Troy'
Tony Nelson

To the victor go the spoils, and to the soldier on the other side...well, they're usually not too concerned about the spoils, having suffered the disadvantage of being killed. As for the women and children left behind by the vanquished, their fate throughout history had been particularly appalling. Euripides tackled their powerless anguish in a pair of dramas, now brought together by Frank Theatre. The result is innovative and intellectually engaging, if at times overwrought and exhausting.

Director Wendy Knox has taken a literary welding torch to The Trojan Women and Hecuba, two works dealing with the aftermath of the Trojan War. When Women of Troy opens, a full decade has passed since Paris made off with the babelicious Helen, and the great city is under siege by the Greeks. The notably treacherous Odysseus then comes up with the Trojan horse idea, and soon the war is over and a metaphor is born. All that's left for the Greeks is to deal with the women and children.

This show is staged in the same Pillsbury machine shop as last year's Fucking A, though the stage has been shifted 90 degrees. The building's industrial infrastructure is put to good use when the giant Trojan horse appears, pulled by a winch attached to a scary-looking overhead track system. John Francis Beuche's set design organically fills the large space while reveling in its funkiness. His faux concrete pillars evoke exoticism until the eye lands on textures of rusty metal and dirty wood. It's a great visual tension.

A second distinctive element of this production is Marya Hart's original piano-based score of songs. Reportedly inspired by a binge of Marian Anderson spirituals, the tunes draw from folk blues and gospel as well as the urbane compositions of Duke Ellington and Kurt Weill. The lyrics are extremely emotional, while at times utilizing a simplified language that reduces painful truths to ironic nuggets. When the women rue being tricked by the beautiful horse, they muse, "He was tall." While the score at times verges on the monochromatic, it contains numerous high points, such as "Our Fate" (lyric: "It was our fate/Grief and destruction was our fate"), when the sheer heaviness of what we're being asked to contemplate comes across entirely.

The ensemble cast is led by stage vet Janis Hardy, who ably maneuvers Hecuba through the horrors of enslavement and losing her children, then the gory half-victory that follows. When she's washing her hands with blood, Hardy is the spirit of cool but unhinged malice. Christiana Clark is funny and a bit scary as Cassandra, and Maesie Speer depicts a touching innocence amid catastrophe, dirt, and bloodshed.

Because that's what this play is all about: the crushing, ineluctable tragedy that envelops women and children in times of war. Gary Keast gives a nice portrayal of a soldier who regrets the evil things he's doing, but who sure as hell is going to follow orders. At a time when our own culture has been at least partly numbed to the reality of the suffering of others in faraway places, this work provokes both empathy and profound frustration. Hart's use of African American musical idioms also serves to evoke the Middle Passage: When the women of Troy prepare to leave their once-happy home for a lifetime in bondage, you can almost feel the echoes rippling through time.

I was asking myself at intermission, though, why I wasn't able to lose myself and love this piece. I suspect it's a matter of tone. The show goes from zero to insanely distraught in about ten seconds, and then it stays there. It's about "waves of grief," but feels more like a tsunami--an overpowering wall of suffering that never lets up. Knox's cast is in fine voice, and her hybrid script affords great fuel for the mind. If only this production dialed back the emotion long enough for me to come to it, I might have been able to climb through the breach and break down the barrier between my seat and the stage.

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