By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
Play On Words is a brand spanking new production company here in PDX, and as you know, we’re a theater-going town. Don’t let their newness put you off: down in the throes of The Boiler Room at Lincoln Performance Hall, they’re performing an edgy retelling of Euripides’ Women of Troy.
The stage is simple but effective, with a few light filters that pattern the floor, reminding us of the all-important Greek city wall, or broken shards of Greece’s famous pottery. It’s a desolate landscape, just as we can imagine Troy would have been before it burned. Our anxiety is high from the beginning scene, when current BBC-sounding news clips of war on the Gaza strip permeate the air. Three men in suits appear on stage. They are from the Coalition, a corporate city-state machine making plans to start a war in the Middle East. This is both millennia ago and today, with Odysseus, Agamemnon and Menelaus creating a publicity stunt (as Kardashian West would in our morning news) to get Helen back from Paris.
A little mythological brush-up: The gods had a contest to see who was the most beautiful of the goddesses. The winner would receive a golden apple, the apple of discord. Zeus, shrugging off his duties as usual, gave the apple to Paris to decide, and Paris awarded it to Aphrodite, who had bribed him with the promise of Helen – the beauty of the world, and Menelaus’s wife – as his prize. Enter discord. The love affair of Paris and Helen motivated armies, the face that launched a thousand ships, as the saying goes, bringing on a 10-year war that ended with the king of Troy and all his male heirs murdered, the women raped or sold into slavery, and the city burnt to the ground. The fates and furies had a busy retail season that year.
Odysseus, as performed by John Marks, is the suited CEO of Ithaca whose overgroomed appearance and mechanical gestures mimic the nightmare images we have of serial killers. His cool, poker-faced sadism charges us with fear. In a scene with Menelaus his borderline personality shines through as he remarks: “You are so underwhelming, they haven’t come up with a word for it.” He’s not the fun-loving, swashbuckling Odysseus of Homer who misses his craft-obsessed wife and young son; he’s the Odysseus of Euripides, a Robert McNamara of Ancient Greece. Marks’s performance is particularly chilling when, seated at a desk with a phone and notebook, he “processes” the women of Troy as prisoners of war. He cuts off Hecuba, queen of Troy, and through a slanted and false smile takes her picture with an iPhone for government records after recording her stats. We could be in Abu Ghraib at this point, and as the play progresses that idea colors more of our imagination.
Women of Troy has a well-seasoned cast, and many of the strongest actors have had careers teaching drama. Not surprisingly, there are only a few moments when the acting doesn’t support the script. Overall, especially for a first production, Women of Troy is an unflinching and unique work that ties history to the present. It’s apparent that this production is director and adaptor Jeffrey Puukka’s baby. He adapts Euripides in a way that isn’t an homage to our Western roots, but rather a gentle nod to an all-too-common and complex story. The Greek tales are timeless, and Puukka uses them to give us images of the realities of modern conflict between everyday people, armies and politicians. It’s not a patronizing liberal critique for pacifism, but a psychological interview of the dark side of human nature.
The Coalition murders, beats, and destroys the women of Troy by picking them off one by one through the modern combination of bureaucracy, technology and animal brutality. Helen is a Friday night bridge-and-tunnel-crowd girl out on the city, and Shannon Mastel plays her as superficially sexy in all the right ways: beautifully opaque enough for Menelaus to still want her, but manipulative enough for us to cringe.
Robert Lee Gaynor enters the stage from a theater seat as the Soldier, a burned and tragic figure caught in the web of post-traumatic stress syndrome, reminiscent of a lost veteran whose former personality has been drained away. He narrates scenes in which the director cleverly stop-motions the actors and places them in a white spotlight. Gaynor is loud, unrelenting, and picture-perfect as the war-worn soldier. His guilt and sense of duty march on throughout his performance like a well-oiled tank. He says at one point: “I wasn’t made an errand boy because I’m eloquent.”
Sean Morgan is the Guard, equipped with a Fidel Castro hat and a semi-automatic machine gun. He herds and taunts the women of Troy as if they were chattel. The scenes where the Guard acts out his war crimes on the women are severe and agonizing to watch: this production isn’t for anyone under 16. He gives a realistic performance of what a military-trained guard at a prison would be expected to act like when humans are being dehumanized.
Hecuba, queen of Troy, is the all-suffering matriarch in a battlefield. Her husband hangs from the city wall as a symbol of the Coalition’s victory. Elizabeth Ware comes off as a gentle, earthy, wise-tempered queen. Her voice takes over the theater with a confidence that only comes when age meets pain. Women of Troy is an honest and difficult look at war, and Ware’s acting opens a book on the confusion and struggles of those caught between the firing rounds. As Troy burns, her primal scream of torture sends chills up your spine and leaves you stunned. The lights drop and the play is done.
Play On Words is a promising band, and if the fates are on their side, they should put on many good productions.
Play On Words’ Women of Troy continues through November 21 in The Boiler Room, Lincoln Performance Hall 55, Portland State University. Ticket and schedule information here.