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The Trojan Women

Shanntina Moore, Lorna C. Hill, and Andrea Natale Profeta in "The Trojan Women."

Buffalo Public Theatre is using a fabulous photograph to promote their current production of Euripides’s The Trojan Women. Three legendary characters—Hecuba, the fallen queen of Troy; her clairvoyant daughter, Cassandra; and her widowed daughter-in-law, Andromache—stare into the lens of the camera with unflinching defiance. The characters are played by Lorna C. Hill, Shanntina Moore, and Andrea Natale-Profeta, and the image clearly communicates the theme and tone of Euripides’s powerful and efficient account of the women who survived the brutal defeat of Troy, only to become slaves and concubines.

The Trojan Women was written during the Peloponnesian War, just a year after Athens had similarly attacked the island of Melos, enraged that the population insisted upon remaining neutral in Athens’ war with Sparta. The Greeks slaughtered all of the men of Melos and enslaved its women. Euripides focused his dramatic sight on the defeated to reveal that in the fullness of time, the nobility of the conquered can make them the true victors. The great tragedian reminds his countrymen that the merciless live in infamy.

Naturally, his anti-war theme has made this play increasingly popular in the modern era.

The play is structured in escalating layers of emotion. These are presented with clear and deliberate order. We need to see these noble women fight despair—and fail.

To be sure, Buffalo Public Theatre has, in association with Ujima Theatre Company, populated the production with spectacular talent. In addition to Hill, Moore, and Natale-Profeta, we see striking Annette Taylor as the goddess Athena and Mike Seitz as morally conflicted Talthybius. Roosevelt Tidwell makes an imposing and welcome return to the Buffalo stage as Poseidon and as Menelaus. Even the chorus is impressive, boasting the skills of Eliza Vann, Caitlin Baeumler Coleman, and Mary Moebius. Adorable Ruby Coleman makes her debut in boy’s clothing as Hector’s ill-fated son.

Each of these actors performs with power and conviction. Each has moments of exquisite nuance and depth.

Ancient tragedy, however, is difficult to execute. Its form and economy are not familiar to us today. With each successive episode, a new character enters, and the dramatic tension rises.

This layering of woe upon woes makes The Trojan Women a particular challenge. There is no reversal of fortune here. Adding to the dramatic impact, Hecuba has a moment of attempted escape through suicide and a moment in which she summons her dignity to prepare the body of her dead grandson for burial, but no moment of self-realization. Moreover, she is almost continuously onstage, and in many respects as much at the mercy of her co-stars and directors as she is of the Greeks.

At times, the production, directed by Kelli Bocock Natale and Joseph Natale, approximates the painful yet noble tenor of tragedy. At other times, the production meanders into excesses of staging and unbridled emoting. The episodes are presented as if they were equal gestures, rather than escalations. The effect is a slackening of tension, and a lack of purpose in the transitions from episode to episode that gives the evening a sense of sameness. No effort to gussy things up with occasional flourishes of spectacle can compensate for a lack of dramatic clarity.

On the plus side, despite an absent sense of emotional journey, the individual sequences are staged with great power, like a handful of unstrung pearls. Ms. Hill is every inch a queen as she warns her fellow Trojan women that their fates will be dire. As Cassandra, blessed with the gift to see the future, but cursed, never to be understood, Ms. Moore enters in a blaze of torchlight and delivers her thrilling prediction of the fall of Agamemnon. As Andromache, Ms. Natale-Profeta walks a most difficulty line, delivering the news of the death of Polyxena and greeting the news of her own son’s imminent death with dignity and pathos.

The final showdown between Hecuba and Helen is wonderfully engaging. Helen is played with authority and fabulous self-possession by Diane Curley. Helen insists that she is as much a pawn of fate as any woman of Troy, and a victim of the whims of Aphrodite. Hecuba is determined at the very least to have the satisfaction of seeing Helen punished; she counters that Aphrodite is just the name we give to our own lust.

With each of these scenes positioned almost as a stand-alone, however, the accumulated impact is diminished. Especially lost in the play’s hazy trajectory is the powerful prologue by Poseidon, and his dialogue with Athena. These seem like extraneous add-ons, rather than the very foundation of a play, establishing that the gods are every bit as petty and capricious as Helen claims. The disconnection also serves as an obstacle to the performance of Mr. Seitz as Talthybius, who must enter with increasingly horrible news, and increasing shame and regret.

The friction between the women of Troy and Helen allows Euripides to keep his play from becoming a fest of blubbering woe. Helen, of course, escapes the dismal end the others face; she merely returns home to her husband and lives out her life. Despite her name, Helen of Troy is not, after all, a Trojan woman at all. More than a condemnation of the brutality of victors and an implicit critique of the horrors of war, The Trojan Women explores the dignity and perseverance required of mortal humans in a world governed by the whims of fate. When hope it futile, fortitude is essential and admirable.