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A Critique of SITI Company’s Trojan Women at ArtsEmerson

I am not quite sure following the SITI Company’s Trojan Women: After Euripides whether I was intended to have had a cathartic release of grief, to feel intense hope for the future, or simply believe that there is no good and I cannot even die to end my suffering. The play was skillfully put together by Ms. Bogart and her company but I found that the major dramaturgical question of what journey I was supposed to be going on was unclear. Do I empathize with Hecuba and the other women, am I a third party observer in these affairs, or is it all open to interpretation? I walked out of the theatre frustrated at what seemed to be an incredibly negative view of the world, and back into a city that spent much of its time grieving through celebration and hope.

It is important to first note that Trojan Women is one of the tragedies that has never flowed into my aesthetic. I have never found it hard to sympathize, even empathize, with the women of Troy but the play is often criticized as being driven by character over action, and thus not much really “happens”. I agree with this, and while SITI’s adaptation of the piece added a few bits of action here and there, it still felt mostly static. And yet ironically, in this production, I found none of the characters especially enjoyable as people for me to empathize with.

One major change in the adaptation was the death of Astyanax by Andromache instead of by the Greeks. The act was played on stage, but subtly and easy to miss. The murder makes Andromache more valuable to the Greeks, but makes no change in the later action of the play. Odd considering it is such a large change from the original text. It is also emphasized as being an act of love, but only further underlines my belief that this production was in fact incredibly negative. How can one kill a baby on stage without symbolically killing hope or the future?

Or maybe this was supposed to be proof of the ability of the Trojan women to take action against their captors to save those that they love. It would make sense since revenge against the Greeks and revenge against Helen seemed to be Hecuba’s main roads towards releasing grief. Yet where I struggle with the play, if this is indeed the “point” is that we live in a society where lust for revenge is common place and often targeted towards stereotyped groups of people instead of towards people. And since Hecuba never exacted her own revenge, was there something in the way that she acted, or never acted, that lead to this? Even if this is the case though, I cannot understand how I am supposed to want to exact revenge on my enemy by killing those I love.

And this summarizes one of the major reasons I found the performance so hard to look at with a kind eye. The only love in the play was love for those dead or soon to die. In a world where we understand the importance of reconciliation and all that comes with that, I would hope for a play that helps me understand how to move forward with my grief, not hold onto it like a black lump in my heart.

All that being said, the play itself was incredibly well performed. Each of the actors had trained extensively with SITI Company, and many with other well known dance groups, and it showed in performance. The technical specificity and prowess that each performer brought was a noticeable aspect in performance.

Anne Bogart is often credited as the inventor of the current iteration of the Viewpoints technique and Tadaschi Suzuki, the other head of SITI Company, is well known for his Suzuki method. Both of these styles were very clear in performance, which is often a signature of SITI Company’s work. As an actor who has trained in a good amount of Viewpoints, there were multiple moments that I feel I can safely assume were devised from that same work. Poseidon’s opening monologue was delivered in a physically heightened way that showcased his impressive existence as a god. It fit well with the epic scale of the text and conversely with the simple scale of the production.

Weird to say, but it also helped that the actors never felt “overly emotional.” The physical specificity of their container allowed for absolutely clear story-telling that never felt like too much when it had yet to earn too much. Another clear product of the method with which the group works.

The design of the play fell into an odd neutral ground in terms of how it told the story. The majority of the stage was taken up by a circle of, what I assume, was meant to represent the ashes of the city as well as the sand of the beach.  Smartly, this physical manifestation of grief enveloped the performers and allowed for some great moments of play, when the little pieces became more than what they were. Contrasting this though, the use of a few chairs seemed out of place. Even though the objects were used as more than what they were, they never felt special or relevant, they did not seem to contain any larger meaning. The story also absolutely could have been told without them. It is confusing to see these perfectly intact and lovely pieces of furniture when the entire city has supposedly been demolished.

What felt most odd about the piece though was the timing. Boston has so recently gone through its own catastrophe, mentioned in a program insert, but this catastrophe made the piece feel oddly irrelevant. It emphasized the huge difference in the way that the people of Boston went through the process of grieving versus what the play seemed to extol. There was no sense of hope, celebration, and kinship through despair in The Trojan Women yet that was what filled Boston with such depth in the past week. The production makes me grateful for what I do have, though it seems to have been asking for something more.

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