‘Greeks’ a powerful journey through tragedy and justice

By
Sunday, March 11, 2007

The curtain rises on a group of Trojan and Greek women standing on a bare stage. Because the past is prologue to their present, they ask what caused the Trojan War. Was it the mother goddess who arose naked from Chaos and separated the earth from the sky as she danced? Or did the discord arise from Helen, the Greek woman abducted by the Trojan Paris? Was it she who caused the Greek ships with their sterns adorned in gold to plunder Troy? As these questions resonate with the audience, a battle sound is heard, and the stage becomes the ruined city of Troy.

This is how the fascinating play “The Greeks/The Murders,” which debuted at the Stuart Theater Thursday night, literally sets the stage for an exploration of the conflicts that arise from the destructive nature of humanity. Using the Trojan War and its tragic aftermath as an analytical lens, the play powerfully addresses universally acknowledged and timeless issues relating to justice, revenge, human tragedy and the existence of evil. In doing so, it inspires contemplation and cathartic emotion in the best tradition of classical Greek theater.

The work was expertly directed by Professor of Theater, Speech and Dance John Emigh, who co-adapted it with James Rutherford ’07 from the play “The Greeks,” written by John Barton and Kenneth Cavander. Barton and Cavander’s play adapted works by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides to present traditional Greek theater in a way that would appeal to modern audiences.

Emigh and Rutherford use the frame of Barton and Cavander’s play but wisely focus their adaptation on the myth of Helen as interpreted by Euripides and the tale of the tragic house of Atreus as recounted by Aeschylus.

According to Emigh, adapting a coherent play from the divergent works of Aeschylus and Euripides was challenging because each playwright has an idiosyncratic voice and unique thematic content. However, he said he found an “interesting dialogue between the playwrights,” in which they address the philosophical questions of truth and human existence that are characteristic of Greek classical thought.

The dialogue of Emigh and Rutherford’s play faithfully reflects these classical themes, but it does so from a fresh and distinctly feminine perspective. Strong women are the primary presence in the play. And they are the force that drives its stirring intellectual exposition of justice and revenge.

In addition to the all-female chorus and Helen (Annabel Topham ’06), the play is filled with a virtual who’s who of female characters from Greek mythology. There is Helen’s sister Clytemnestra (Katie Meister ’06), who kills her husband Agamemnon (Christian Luening ‘05.5) in revenge for his sacrificial murder of their daughter Iphigenia (Jessie Hopkins ’08). There is Clytemnestra’s daughter Electra (Aja Nisenson ’07), who joins with her brother Orestes (Chris Bremner ’06) to kill Clytemnestra in revenge for their father’s murder. And there is the Trojan princess Cassandra (Theodora Greece ’06), who cannoy use her prophetic power to avoid being enslaved and murdered.

There are excellent and fully realized male characters in the play as well, most notably Agamemnon and his avenging son Orestes. However, from the feminist perspective of the play, men, rather than women, are a source of evil in the world. As Emigh said, the play provides “an anti-Adam and Eve view, giving the sense that the creation of man was an experiment gone wrong.”

This unique perspective on Greek drama is excellently portrayed by the fine ensemble cast of the play. Gloria Huwiler ’06, who plays Hecuba, and Lizzie Vieh ’07, who portrays Andromache, were particularly excellent in executing the sorrow of their tragic characters. Meister and Nisenson were equally successful in achieving the comic in a humorous dialogue between a mother and her daughter. As Cassandra, Greece interwove Greek and English to express her character’s possession by Apollo effectively. Luening excelled as an man embittered by the past.

But perhaps the most important and effective role was the one collectively played by the Chorus, as they collectively empowered with genuine emotions. Com-posed by Alex Clifford ’06, the music of the play powerfully expressed the sentiment of the action.

In addition to fine acting, the play also has a strong political message in its provocative surprise ending. The play explores the existential limits of human understanding by revealing how misinformation can lead to war. Therein lies what Emigh said is an important contemporary political lesson. He said we need look no farther than the United States’ war on terror to be reminded of the destructive results misinformation can yield.

However, the play is not without its flaws. In attempting to synthesize disparate works into one coherent play, the script sometimes lacks a taut linear focus, as its story line weaves from one tangent to another. There are times when the performance is overripe with characters representing mythical archetypes, many of which might be unfamiliar to viewers without a classical background. This is especially evident in the Chorus scenes where the play, at times, relies too heavily on arcane mythological allusion rather than character development for meaning.

Notwithstanding these flaws, “The Greeks/The Murders” successfully evokes contemplation and emotive reaction in its audience. The important themes it addresses use the mirror of the past to illuminate the present. In so doing, it renders, in Emigh’s words, a tale at the “heart of the human experience,” which will affect your mind and your sensibility.

EVENT INFO“The Greeks / The Murders”Stuart Theater, Nov. 10-13 and Nov. 17-208 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays$5 students (with ID); $10 seniors, faculty and staff; $15 general public401.863.2838