Revenge -- that most potent of dramatic incentives -- is what drives Euripides' Hecuba (430-424 BCE, Before the Common Era). For the ancient Greeks, revenge was largely a matter of logic and justice: Do unto others what they have done unto you, especially if it involves murder.
Star power -- Olympia Dukakis plays the Trojan queen -- is what drives ACT's production. Directed by Carey Perloff, translated and adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker, Hecuba has finally been mounted (after being postponed) at Center for the Arts Theatre. While Dukakis' tour-de-force performance is a brilliant addition to what has been, on the whole, a lackluster season in San Francisco, its standout nature highlights a production whose mechanics are entirely too much in evidence. I kept admiring what I saw, but I couldn't forget for a second that I was doing so from a chair in a theater.
One of the most popular of the Greek tragedies, the story of Hecuba is a playwright's dream: The former queen of Troy, Hecuba has been enslaved by the conquering Greeks who hold the entire family accountable for the Trojan War, which was started when Hecuba's son Paris abducted Helen from her Greek husband, Menelaus. The deposed queen is "a woman lucky in her children" -- she gave birth to 19 sons and an unspecified number of daughters -- "and unlucky in her destiny" -- she has been stripped of every vestige of power.
At the play's beginning, she is troubled by dreams of more bad news: A son, Polydorus, appears in a vision to tell her he's been killed by the king to whom he was sent for safekeeping, Polymestor. Then, when she wakes, she learns that Odysseus, her conqueror, is on his way to remove her one remaining daughter, Polyxena, who will be slaughtered as retribution for the killing of Achilles, the Greek war hero. Hecuba begs Odysseus to spare Polyxena, but, as troubled as he is over the morality of this latest act of vengeance, he has the law on his side and intends to carry it out. For her part, Polyxena goes willingly, preferring death with honor to slavery.
Hecuba is left in her barren encampment with the women of Troy to await news of her daughter's death. Presumed to be powerless, she has been literally left out in the elements to expire, as though she were an unwanted child. (Ironically, she and Priam, her late husband, tried leaving the infant Paris in similar straits, having been warned that his fate was to cause the destruction of their kingdom.) When she learns that Polymestor is on his way to see her, she informs Odysseus that she intends to take her revenge, asking only that he allow her to do so.
Issue after issue comes tumbling to the fore. Is revenge honorable or merely spiteful? And do women have any rights at all when it comes to matters of war? In ancient Greece, the thinking-man's nightmare was the possibility of women rising up and taking their revenge. (Or women doing much of anything, actually, beyond bearing children and keeping house.) As playwright, Euripides' challenge was to give voice to moral concerns while making Hecuba's action both inevitable and emotionally cathartic.
Perloff's ponderous staging plunges us into the heart of the nightmare. Overhead a billowing white silk cloud (part of Kate Edmunds' stunning set) reveals the outline of the dead boy, whose body has been ruthlessly cast into the sea. His shadow lolls above Hecuba's head as his ghostly voice describes his own murder. In the background, the Chorus of the women of Troy (played by the singing group KITKA, specialists of the hauntingly discordant folk music of eastern Europe) provides an edgy undercurrent of harmonics. (The choice of using KITKA as the Chorus is a bold one, but their lines were often lost in the musical settings, and when intelligible, were occasionally distracting and anachronistic. For instance, one jarring line went, "I shouted curses on that Helen.")
The play inhabits a dreamlike state of abject misery in which issues are subverted by style. Emotion is the ruling force in Perloff's staging, which often moves at an uncomfortably deliberate pace; grief overwhelms any other possible consideration. As played by Dukakis, Hecuba's pain is primordial, visceral and unending. It seems to twist up from her gut. Her voice is ravaged; she can barely stand upright. When she tells Polyxena (Shirley Roecca), "This was not the time for you to die," her heartbreak is palpable.
Clearly, there's much to applaud here. But for most of the evening, we never get past the act of admiring, which is by definition an impersonal, detached experience. It's the craft that stands out here, not the play and not the issues it presents. As much as we can appreciate Edmunds' set (with its patch of dirt that gets spread everywhere), or Peter Maradudin's lighting, or the inspiration of using singers for the traditional Greek chorus, or even the added contemporary significance their Eastern European melodies add (composed for the occasion by David Lang) -- as much as we want to be swept away and thrilled by the sheer force of the talent we see everywhere on the stage, we remain all too aware of the mechanics behind the magic.