The Trojan Women
The Women of Troy Speak Us Home
By Euripides (translated by Edith Hamilton)
Taffety Punk Theatre Company, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, March 1, 2017 (middle center in studio theater)
Directed by Kelsey Mesa
Hecuba (Brigid Cleary) laments her state in Taffety Punk's Riot Grrrls production of Euripides' The Trojan Women at the company's Capitol Hill Arts Workshop theater. Below, Shanara Gabrielle as Poseidon. Photos by Teresa Castracane, Taffety Punk Theatre Company.
Taffety Punk called it "Bring-a-Dude night," a two-for-one ticket promotion the theater company offered for its all-woman Riot Grrrls production of Euripides' The Trojan Women. It might have proved too high a cost for some men, though.
Here was the deal for Wednesday evening performances during the show's three-week run (not that a promotion was needed; performances sold out through its final week):
- Patrons "bring a dude to the show" (no indication on whether it has to be a woman who brings the dude).
- "Make him say 'Grrrls Rule' at the door."
- "He pays full price."
- "You get in free."
My policy with Shakespeareances.com is to pay for tickets of every show we attend, including those I review (at free-to-public shows I put fair ticket price equivalent in the bucket or hat). I will, however, take advantage of discount offers to the general public. So my wife, Sarah, took this dude to see The Trojan Women where I eagerly anticipated shouting "Riot Grrrls Rule!" at the door because, well, they do rule. Taffety Punk is one of Washington, D.C.'s most innovative theater companies, and its annual Riot Grrrrls productions feature company members who are among the best talents in the region: actresses such as Tonya Beckman, Kimberly Gilbert, and Esther Williamson, along with director Lise Bruneau.
I was a bit disappointed that this show did not feature the Riot Grrrls of yore. Taffety Punk is presenting a new generation of Riot Grrrls; of the nine-woman cast, only one, Katie Murphy (Chorus), has Taffety Punk credits in her bio. This, however, becomes an irrelevant matter once the play gets underway as this cast not only proves to be a strong ensemble but features stellar talents new to the D.C. theater scene, especially Shanara Gabrielle, who takes a vise-grip hold on us with her Poseidon's opening speech and gives an achingly rich portrayal of Andromache. Don't mistake my use of the term generation for young, either. Certainly, Taffety Punk generally skews young in its makeup, but playing Hecuba in The Trojan Women is Brigid Cleary, a long-established veteran of Capital Region theaters. And, yeah, she rules, too.
I was more disappointed that the theater didn't hold me to the terms of the promotion. I didn't get a chance to speak my line at the door, and I took great pains to con it. Instead, we were prompted to shout "Grrrls Rule" during the preshow speech, and the response sounded pretty desultory to me. In these fractured times, I wondered, do guys just demur from making any social testimony that could be construed as political statement? Or are guys really worried about conceding any more ground—even the slightest inch—to women and other gender variations. That bears further commentary on this day, International Women's Day.
In the social media I follow (theater-centric), the greatest fractures I see are not right versus left but women versus men. Even if many men, myself included, are on board with women's causes, the battle lines on so many issues are drawn with a feminist marker. I find this worrisome because such rushes to judgments and their resulting grip ignore other contributing factors, a warping of reality that ultimately endanger women's causes by missing more serious consequences. I cringed when the 2016 U.S. presidential election turned into a triumphant woman-beating-a-guy clarion call as Hilary Clinton advanced in the polls. My instincts told me that such gloating would backfire (and I expressed this fear in an email to one theater administrator). Meanwhile, my learned intelligence told me that Clinton would be better off focusing on what her husband famously decreed in his run for the White House a quarter century before hers: "It's the economy, stupid."
On this very day, feminist factions are promoting a general women's strike not only from work but from shopping. I concur with those who argue that this "Day without a Woman" campaign is hijacking the purpose of International Women's Day, but my opinion is based on a man's logic: Women have spent years proving how vital they are in the workplace, so why would they want to allow any opportunity for men to justify their fast-held notion that women aren't vital? When I told Sarah of the planned "Day without a Woman" campaign—she wasn't aware of it—she shook her head. "Women will be fired, like what happened with the immigrants' strike," she said. Sarah points to the more serious fissures that such campaigns reveal: The issues are not women versus men so much as they are the disenfranchised versus the franchised, and women who can easily take a sick day or forego shopping for 24 hours might consider themselves revolutionaries when they really are only exhibiting their own socially stable status.
Full disclosure: I'm not a woman. I get that I do not have the woman's experience as part and parcel of my emotional, intellectual, and experiential makeup. Further, as a heterosexual male, I'm innately sexist. There's too much evidence in the pages of Shakespeareances.com for me to contend otherwise. I also will not sink to pandering by proclaiming myself a feminist at heart: Reach your own conclusions either in this essay or other commentary on Shakespeareances.com (the pertinent ones I've listed on the top of the linksbar to the right).
I do, however, have to point out that one of the most important mentors in my life is my wife. Her feminist cred was established way back when, as a lieutenant, she was one of the first women to serve on gender-integrated missile silo crews in the U.S. Air Force (she was the crew's supervisor, too). Twenty-nine years and three commander stints later she retired as a colonel and is still serving the U.S. military. Sarah arrived in the Air Force right after the first women pioneers (and long before several career fields had yet to open to women), and from that first generation she learned the merits of proving your value in the workplace through duty, loyalty (up the chain of command and down), big-picture understanding ("the mission"), and patient perseverance. Perhaps she and I are out of step with times that are a-changing, and while I can't counter that argument, I will forever honor my wife's courage and obvious success.
On that note I turn to another of my inspirations, Martin Luther King Jr. (about whom I've also written a commentary on Shakespeareances.com, as well as having featured him in a review of the Robert Schenkkan play, All the Way). King was more than a great speaker who could inspire his followers and disarm his opponents. He married this talent and his scholarship with his extraordinary skills as an organizer able to bring disparate factions into the fold, manage their expectations, and patiently use this following to work change through various political systems. Notably, he extended his call for enfranchisement beyond African-Americans to Latinos, other immigrant groups, and impoverished whites, too, despite the violent threat poor whites posed to people of color (King died before the feminist movement gained traction). Furthermore, while the boycotts and marches were essential to instigating negotiations for change, King and, especially, Bob Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee never took their eyes off their primary weapon of change: the vote. While King worked the political wheels to make voting rights the civil rights movement's cornerstone legislation, Moses led efforts to register blacks to vote in the face of violence and institutional discrimination.
Categorizing everything as a gender issue deflects needed attention on the bigger picture issue of conservatives' concerted and, in many cases, successful efforts to roll back voting rights for minorities. It is a slippery slope: erasing 50 years of enfranchisement for one population could easily become a 100-year setback for another population (note: women's social and political stature has waxed and waned over the centuries). Call me an alarmist—I'll take that compliment (my instincts are usually right), but at least write this phrase out and stick it to your wall: it's the vote, stupid. Only through political presence via the ballot box will women's issues (i.e., all social welfare issues) be truly heard in the Western world and further broadcast around the globe. Here's the advice from my wife: Start now educating people on the need to vote and getting everybody registered to vote (in twos and threes to stay under the radar). Then, in the lead-up to every election (local, state, off-year national, presidential) make sure that each voter is already armed with whatever legal means are necessary to vote. Meantime, resist any and all legislative attempts to disenfranchise voting rights.
Women have a voice: Certainly, it can be heard through a bullhorn, from a podium, in government chambers, or via a tweet, but it speaks loudest in the ballot booth.
You might think I've gone off on a tangential rant with this review, but all I have just written is a subtext of The Trojan Women. It also reflects on the significance of Taffety Punk's choosing this play for its annual Riot Grrrls' production. The Riot Grrrls tradition got its start when local theaters started staging all-male-cast Shakespeare plays on the basis of historic fealty; already saddled with a dearth of women's roles in William Shakespeare's plays, Taffety Punk's actresses launched their all-woman productions as pointed counterprogramming. The Riot Grrrls tradition continued as a means of giving women opportunities to play roles otherwise denied them because of their gender.
This year, however, the Riot Grrrls decided it was more important to tell a more universal story. "We are not immune from this kind of tragedy," Director Kelsey Mesa wrote in the production's press material about a play set in the days after Troy's destruction by the Greek army. "We, too, can be driven from our homes. It's just a matter of fate." A Miami native, Mesa counted Cuban refugees among her friends, but "that never stopped me from sinking back into the dependence on a cushy United States middle class kind of life. It's dangerous to depend on that. It's dangerous to think that you're somehow above those who are already facing tragedy and terror and displacement."
Mesa dramatizes her sentiments in the opening scene of her production when the women enter dancing in celebration to Taylor Swift's megahit song "Shake It Off." The war, they think, has ended with the Greeks sailing away. But the sound of explosions and gunfire interrupt their revelry and, looking upward with shocked expressions—apparently, seeing soldiers emerge from the giant horse the Greeks had given Troy as a peace offering—the women scatter, screaming. Jen Gillette's costumes are generally modern with hints of the ancient world in the accouterments; the set features piles of belongings, laundry, travel bags, and toys (Crista Noel Smith is credited for prop design). They may be women of Troy in 1000 B.C. awaiting a lottery among the Greek generals selecting them as slaves, but they appear here as modern refugees leaving countless communities around the world.
Call Mesa an alarmist, but the most senior cast member expressed a strong reason to feel alarmed, too. "A lot of women woke up the morning of November 9 feeling their lives had been turned upside-down," said Cleary in the press notes referring to her approach to the role of Hecuba. "Their world as they knew it was no more. There are too many places where we can see women like Hecuba today."
Euripides staged The Trojan Women in 415 B.C. during the Peloponnesian Wars; thus it is one of the earliest forms of antiwar protests on record. His message is first uttered slyly by the god Poseidon, Gabrielle wearing black suit and tie, silver scrolls on one jacket breast, and jewelry chains draping her face. Poseidon determines in his play-opening speech to leave the ruined city he patronized. "For when drear desolation seizes on a town, the worship of the gods decays and tends to lose respect," a sentiment expanded beyond the aftermath of war to any society whose institutions are undermined by its authorities, as was happening in Athens at the time.
"A fool is he who sacks the towns of men, with shrines and tombs, the dead man's hallowed home, for at the last he makes a desert round himself and dies," Poseidon concludes. This sentiment returns in the speech of Cassandra (Liz Daingerfield playing bright-eyed confusion) who, through her madness, points out that the real losers of the Trojan War were the Greeks, for their soldiers died and were buried far from their homes, creating empty lives for the widows, parents, and orphans back in Greece. "Whoso is wise should fly from making war; but if he be brought to this pass, a noble death will crown his city with glory," she says. Even the Greek herald, Talthybius (Danielle Drakes), agrees with her.
The fact that Euripides tells this story through women also makes this one of the earliest feminist works on record. Nor do the women speak in one voice. Cassandra with her visionary faith, Andromache in her strict moral bearings, and Hecuba in her nostalgic regal yearnings contend with their fates in different ways, while the chorus of captive women (Murphy, Erica Chamblee, Sarah Pretz, and Lynette Rathnam) represent the common feminine masses, focused on surviving while awaiting what fate men bestow on them. They unite in grief when Andromecha's son is taken from her and thrown to his death from a tower of Troy. And they unite in their hate for Helen (Sara Dabney Tisdale) as they urge Menelaus (Daingerfield) to never pardon her. This gets a bit dicey, perhaps, for while Helen is revealed to have been the self-centered, prima donna star of Real Housewives of Troy, her infidelities shouldn't be cause to "die a shameful death as is her due, and impress the need of chastity on all her sex," as Menelaus says, who then goes on to say something fundamentally misogynist: "No easy task, yet shall her fate strike their foolish hearts with terror, e'en though they be more lost to shame than she." Conservative male lawmakers ever since have found "impress[ing] the need of chastity on all her sex" no easy task, especially as they turn a blind eye to "the need of chastity on all" who are not of Helen's sex, including themselves.
One by one the women are led off to the Greek ships and their futures as slaves or enforced "wives." Even survival is no consolation. "O woe is me! Trembling, quaking limbs, support my footsteps! Away, to face the day that begins thy slavery," cries Hecuba.
"Ah! woe!" cry the chorus of women departing the stage. All they're left with is a voice. Your vote.
March 8, 2017