Women of war
Greek tragedy tells a tale for all times
By Jenny Lower 04/12/2012
That word’s been getting a lot of play recently, ever since right-wing pundit Rush Limbaugh hurled it at law-school student Sandra Fluke after she testified that health insurance providers should cover birth control.
It shows up again in Senga Classic Stage Company’s Women of Troy, now playing at the Ojai Valley Grange. The cast couldn’t have known a few months ago, that come curtain time, the already loaded word would carry even more weight.
In Senga’s production, the Trojan women shriek it at Helen as she is wheeled onstage in a dog cage. Their city has just been burned, their husbands and children murdered at the hands of the Greeks, and they’re enraged at the trollop responsible for their suffering. Unsurprisingly, Helen’s cuckolded husband, Menelaus, also spits it when he shows up to reclaim her.
It’s a problematic word, particularly because Senga’s production doesn’t problematize it. In an age when everything has two sides, we are offered an uncritical view of Helen as adulteress at best, whore at worst.
And the audience loves it.
Women of Troy isn’t really even about Helen, who is Greek. The play picks up 10 years after her ill-fated affair with Paris and opens, post-wooden horse, at the tail end of the Trojan War. We learn what happens to all the conquered women left behind: the dethroned yet regal Hecuba (Adrian Bailey), widow of King Priam; her daughter-in-law Andromache (MiMi Alain), widow of the great warrior Hector, slain by Achilles; and Hecuba’s two daughters: prophetess-priestess Cassandra (Emily Heffner) and the young Polyxena (Sierra Glenn). Note, we’re concerned with the fate of royalty here — forget everyone else.
And because these women are royalty, they get special treatment. Hecuba, now an old woman, is doomed to work as a slave in the household of Odysseus. Andromache and Cassandra are claimed as concubines by the Greeks. Polyxena is sentenced to guard the tomb of Achilles. It’s difficult not to see Andromache’s point when she envies the dead: “I am alive. What hope have I?”
Women of Troy is a tough play to watch, with its unremittingly grim depiction of war’s aftermath. But its sorrow is captivating. Artistic Director Francisca Beach adapted the script from several translations of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, including Charles Mee’s version incorporating accounts of modern-day atrocities from the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Though grounded in the classical style, complete with seating in the round, this production uses contemporary detail in a way that serves well a play with so much to say about war anytime, anywhere.
Bailey is a knockout as the ravaged Hecuba, and Alain makes a close second as the stony Andromache. A strong five-woman chorus performs John Biggs’ elegant compositions under Jaye Hersh’s skillful musical direction, with members Deina Bleu and Christina Colombo particular standouts.
All is not gloom, however, and the audience seizes gratefully on the moments of lightness. That includes the first encounter in a decade between Helen (Nancy Jane Marie) and Menelaus (Frank James Malle), who enters with swagger and bluster but succumbs like a schoolboy to his wife’s seductive charms. The scene feels out of place amid the mournfulness but plays like a breath of fresh air. Because soon enough, we return to violence and the new refugees waiting to board their masters’ ships.
It’s then that the link becomes clear. This view of women as chattels is not unconnected from the slut shaming that occurs early on when the Trojan women rush Helen’s cage, rattling the bars and jeering, thirsty for her blood. Helen crouches like a feral cat, her legs bare, breasts thrusting from her low-cut dress.
What the Trojan women don’t see, even at the end, is that Helen’s fate remains inextricable from their own suffering. In a world where any woman can be a slut and sluts can be killed, even so-called respectable women won’t stay safe for long.
Women of Troy, Senga Classic Stage Company, April 6-29, Ojai Valley Grange, 381 Cruzero St., Ojai. For reservations: (805) 646-4885.