I would never have guessed that Aurora Theatre's production of The Trojan Women takes place in San Francisco's Ferry Plaza if I hadn't come across an article in one of the dailies saying as much. The locale isn't mentioned in Ellen McLaughlin's adaptation of Euripides' 415 B.C. drama dealing with the spoils of the Trojan War or in the program notes. John Iacovelli's striking set design hints at the setting, but only obscurely. What appears to be a cluster of massive rusty square metal pipes is apparently a reproduction of the Vaillancourt Fountain, the 1971 water sculpture near the Ferry Building.
Does making this connection change theatergoers' understanding or appreciation of the play? In one sense, not really. McLaughlin's haunting, hour-long drama, like Euripides' before her, capably deals with a timeless subject — the horrors that befall victims of conflict after the fighting is done and they've dug their kinsmen's graves. Both Euripides and McLaughlin use the story of the ghastly fates that await the defeated women of Troy at the hands of the victorious Greek army to vent their anger at wars in their own times. Euripides wrote his drama to express his revulsion at Greece's aggressive campaign against the neutral island state of Melos. McLaughlin originally penned hers in the mid-1990s in response to the plight of refugees displaced by the Balkan conflict. Aurora Theatre's production, which is based on McLaughlin's rewrite for Fordham University in 2003, aims to be more universal. Set in what looks like a timeless, placeless wasteland, the play's message might equally apply to recent or current conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Tibet.
As such, not knowing that director Barbara Oliver's affecting production takes place on Justin Herman Plaza isn't much of a setback. Thinking of the characters as playing out their fates in some dilapidated factory or in a sewage spill zone resonates strongly enough with the drama's pervasive atmosphere of entrapment and decay. Yet in failing to draw more attention to the production's contemporary San Francisco setting, Aurora does McLaughlin's play a disservice. A greater sense of specificity may be what's needed to transform The Trojan Women from being yet another — albeit lovely — antiwar play to a powerful theatrical event.
The Trojan Women stands out from other antiwar plays by virtue of its ultrasympathetic view of what it means to be a victim of war. The play takes place directly after the fall of Troy to the Greek army, following a decade of fighting prompted by the Trojan prince Paris' kidnapping of the beautiful Spartan queen, Helen. As the play opens, with Troy's male population all dead or vanished, the women gather in front of their smoldering city to commiserate the fate that awaits them as slaves or concubines to the Greeks.
McLaughlin's version further distinguishes itself from other works in the genre through its penetrating exploration of the rage and desperation of the victimized characters. Their helpless anger comes across particularly strongly in the scene where chorus members physically attack Helen, whom they view as the perpetrator of their suffering. In a bold departure from Euripides' text, the chorus throws itself at the Spartan queen, intent on literally ripping the beauty that caused so much ill from her body and face. But despite being brought to her knees, Helen remains bold. Bloody and bruised with her arms tied to a yoke around her neck like a sacrificial beast, the character, played with swaggering pride by Nora el Samahy, ought to look like the image of defeat. But el Samahy manages to convey dignity, even in her sorry-looking state. Though McLaughlin's decision to give the chorus a physical outlet for its anger seems gratuitous, it serves a powerful function in helping us to understand the Trojan women's feelings about the inflexibility of their fate: The assault on Helen is ultimately meaningless, and her attackers are left with nothing but impotent rage.
Profoundly moving performances from the rest of Aurora's cast further force Euripides' ancient tale to resonate across millennia. As portrayed with understated resilience by Carla Spindt, Troy's fallen queen, Hecuba, tries to set an example of strength for her people. Yet she appears exhausted and almost resigned to her fate. As Hecuba's mad daughter Cassandra, Sarah Nealis bristles with nervous energy. Unlike her companions, she abandons despair for lucid-hysterical defiance. "The poor Greeks!" she exclaims with a mad giggle. "Our conquerors! Homesick and tired, eternally squabbling, mending their armor, stealing from each other, squinting out from our beaches across the water over which they came so long ago — and for what? Some wandered wife? Some faded adulteress? For whom they lay down their lives for ten long years, sand in their beds, meal after wretched army meal, days and months and season after season. These are the men you fear? Pity them!" Hecuba's daughter-in-law, Andromache, meanwhile, quickly becomes the real focus of our pity. The moment when the Greeks force Andromache to surrender her son Astyanax so that they might put him to death is the most sickening of the play, owing largely to Emilie Talbot's feeling though astutely unsentimental performance.
By the time the broken body of Astyanax arrives onstage, we, too, feel broken. If only that feeling would stay with us. Despite the eternal relevance of the story, the savage lyricism of McLaughlin's writing, and the power of Aurora's production, our empathy for the victims of war soon starts to feel remote. The idea that these events could take place at any time in any place is easy to grasp with the mind, but less so with the heart.
From Aristophanes' Lysistrata to David Hare's Stuff Happens, theatrical history is overrun with antiwar plays. Like Cassandra's prophesies, dramatists' tirades against oppressive armies frequently fall on deaf ears, no matter how well written and sublimely acted they may be. This may partly be due to a lack of specificity. Playwrights are often so keen to highlight the universal ravages of conflict — how its effects are repeated over and over across time and space — that they ignore or downplay the details that make the work revolutionary, or, at the very least, stick in the imagination.
By letting the audience know from the outset that the events in The Trojan Women are supposed to unfold neither in some ancient mythical city nor on a random sewage farm, but right here in San Francisco right now, the Aurora Theatre could make the cruelties of war seem all the more immediate to its audiences. Only by seeing the physical environment for what it is can we begin to understand what it means for this particular fountain to run dry. I'm not suggesting that the Aurora should hang a sign saying "This way to the Ferry Building" above the set or hand out essays about Vaillancourt Fountain to patrons as they enter the theater. But a short program note would do much to anchor this timeless work in our own lives.