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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
"You use words like ropes!"
This pulled-from-the-headlines sounding accusation was penned by one of the 5th century's greatest playwrights, Euripides. The speaker is the Greek leader Agamemnon (L. Peter Callender). The man "on the rope" is King Polymestor of Thrace (Steven Anthony Jones) who, after betraying the trust and friendship of Queen Hecuba of Troy (Olympia Dukakis) tries to defend his actions so that Agamemnon will punish Hecuba and her handmaidens for the vengeance they have wreaked on him. Vengeance of the eye-for-an-eye variety is Hecuba's linchpin. The issues of justice, friendship, superstition and women's self-empowerment propelling that vengeance explain why Euripides' tragedy, though in recent years eclipsed by The Trojan Women and Medea, still has much to say to modern audiences.
As adapted and translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker and lovingly staged by Carey Perloff' the Williamstown Theatre revival is a feast for the eyes and ears. Even though trimmed from the original text, the story of wartime, (written against the background of Euripides' own war torn world), unfolds at a leisurely tempo that echoes the agonizingly slowed pace of lives turned upside down by the upheavals of war.
Kate Edmonds' dazzling set evokes a world where time stands still as Nature has stranded the Greek conquerors on the desolate shore of Thrace. Against a turquoise blue sky she has constructed part of the Greek vessel with a plank connecting the conquerors and the make-shift lean-tos of the ship's human booty, the Queen of Troy and her female entourage. The ship's one visible sail is brilliantly used as a scrim for the on and off again image of the ghost of Hecuba's son foreshadowing the tragic events that will follow the prologue. The first of the tragedies befalling the already beleaguered Queen is the Greeks' demand for a sacrifice to Achilles to stir the wind they need to sail home. The sacrificial lamb is Hecuba's daughter Polyxena (Roxanne Raja). The second tragedy, and the one that turns the unprotected Trojan women into fearsome avengers, is the discovery that Polymestor, putting gold before friendship, has drowned the last of her nineteen children.
The images created by Ms. Perloff and the show's designers -- the rich rust palette of David F. Draper's costumes, the WTF's unfailingly creative Rui Rita's lighting -- make for a moving gallery of animated canvases. The haunting chants of the Balkan vocal ensemble KITKA, (abetted by David Lang's musical composition), underscore the director's solid grounding in Euripides' work. The great Greek regularly used exotic foreign melodies and would no doubt approve this casting of the chorus.
If I seem to be dwelling more on the physical production than the acting, it's because the star of this Hecuba did not, at least for this viewer, capture the grandeur of this tragic queen. Her movements and delivery are too stylized to draw the tears that actresses, including the one and only Sarah Bernhardt, have drawn from countless audiences through the centuries. As in her performance as Lear earlier in the season, (The Lear Project at Shakespeare & Co.-- see link), Ms. Dukakis shows great stage presence but she seems more successful in projecting dourness and anger than tenderness. To her legion of devoted fans,this may well be a minority opinion.
Of the women lending support to the star, Michelle Say as the chorus leader and Roxanna Raja are both affecting. Of the men Marco Baricelli best meets the challenge of his character. In the unhappy role of Odysseus who must lead the young princess to her fate, he embodies every soldier who has obeyed orders against his better instincts. L. Peter Callender is a commanding Agamemnon whose reined in emotions are nicely contrasted against Steven Anthony Jones' hypocritical and eventually hysterical Polymestor.
In an era when directors seem to be the driving force in the theater, Carey Perloff is clearly a force to be reckoned with. San Francisco readers will want to keep tabs on the American Conservatory Theatre where she is artistic director and where this production is scheduled to return .(It premiered there several years ago). New Yorkers who admired her work at the Classic Stage Company will want to see what she has wrought at Williamstown. Like much of the WTF season, this Hecuba wouldn't rate a 10 out of 10 in a review with a numerical rating. However, like 10 out of 10 of the Festival's offerings, it provides Berkshire theater goers with solid and never pandering to beach read taste theatrical fare. That's not too bad.
The Lear Project