An unintentionally humorous curtain speech was stylistically prophetic at Washington University's production of The Trojan Women. After asking the audience to turn off all cell phones, the earnest young man announced, "This show contains a gunshot and some sexual material. I hope you enjoy it." Unsure whether he had in mind the show, the gunshot or the sexual material, the audience chuckled. Laughter and Greek tragedy are odd companions -- but here they were only the first of several unusual pairings.
The Trojan Women is a staple of the academic theater diet, providing educational opportunities and that most precious of ingredients: lots of female roles. The tragedy centers on the palace women of Troy after the city has fallen: Hecuba, former Queen; her daughter, Cassandra; and her daughters-in-law, Andromache and Helen (of "thousand ships" fame). Now the property of the Greek army, they and their servants await their fate. In between episodes that showcase the women's dilemmas, a chorus speaks directly to the audience about their grief and the ten-year battle.
As constructed by director (and Saint Louis Black Rep founder/producing director) Ron Himes and his team of designers, the world of the play references contemporary images within a classical setting: Christopher Pickart's scenery combines traditional Greek architecture with barbed wire; Bonnie Kruger's costumes span a range of eras; sound designer Matt Kitces plays with reverb and funky music. Himes uses his energetic cast well in the choral sections, some whose verses echo with haunting beauty, others with hip-hop rhyme. (The latter touch led one audience member to quip that this production should be credited to Eurapides.)
The tragedy's core is reached when Andromache is forced to turn over her young son, Astyanax, to the Greek army to be killed. Ann Marie Mohr's strong performance is heartbreaking, exposing the true follies and horrors of war, while Hal Matthews' silent performance as Astyanax puts an appropriately innocent face on battle statistics. Pushkar Sharma is excellent as the reluctant Greek messenger Talthybius, a middle-management type who regrets his superior's orders but won't defy them.
The play builds to the climactic scene in which Menelaus confronts his wife Helen, whose affair with Hecuba's son Paris started the war. Here Himes' vision turns from intriguing to gratuitous. Helen, dressed in nearly nothing, does a distractingly modern erotic dance around a pole as she attempts to convince Menelaus of her innocence. While the earlier references to modern culture (a Bob Marley tune at the opening of the show, gun-toting soldiers) focus on the contemporary relevance of Euripides' anti-war message, the scene here is so exaggerated and disconnected from the rest of the play that it shifts focus away from the devastation of war. Jenny Lichtenberg shows confidence in playing Helen, and Chris Wilson, with his shaggy Brad Pitt looks, is enticing as Menelaus, but he hardly seems like a war-seasoned soldier intent on obtaining his prize -- and she seems like she's wandered in from Flashdance.
In the end, the women of Troy band together bravely and board the Greek ships. We know from the prologue that Poseidon and Athena have doomed the ships: The women and the Greeks are sailing to their death. So how does Himes end our encounter with this Greek tragedy? With another odd juxtaposition: At the end of the curtain call, the cast dances happily as they leave the stage. This sudden shedding of solemnity negates the weight of the play and undermines the show's impact. The audience leaves laughing and chatting, as if nothing serious had transpired. The unusual combinations of gunshots and pole-dancing, Greek gods and Bob Marley, tongue-kisses and child-killing create a fitfully effective production. While the students clearly work hard, their efforts can't overcome the director's conflicted vision.