According to mythology, Meneleus started the entire Trojan War over Helen of Troy. With Trojan Women: A Love Story, Charles Mee adds the tragedy of Dido and Aeneus to the mix. Scholars could write dissertations on Mee's tongue-in-cheek title alone, but the play as a whole -- an examination of the curious link between love and war -- is much more interesting. It begins on a floor painted to look like marble, surrounded by septic gray curtains. A group of tired and tattered actors walk onstage through the audience and do a languid dance; their morbid cabaret continues while Hecuba delivers a monologue about the rape and destruction of her country.
There are many reasons to weep for Hecuba, not the least of which being Aimee Phelan's moving performance. The character has witnessed the horrors of war and will watch her daughters sold as concubines for the victorious enemies; Apollo has given her most treasured daughter, Cassandra, the gift of foresight, but everyone mistakes it as madness. Hecuba worries that the prophet will be made the butt of Greek jeers. As it turns out, that's the least of her troubles: The Greek officer Talthybius announces that she and her children will be sold into slavery.
The destructive power of love is stressed throughout the play. At one point, Meneleus rails pathetically about how the Trojans raped and kidnapped his wife Helen when, in fact, she has cheated on him with Paris. When the flippant Helen returns to him, she taunts the Trojan women by saying, "You use a fucking dildo, you fucking losers." Welcome to Charles Mee's warped sense of humor! The playwright is known for taking the text of his plays from a variety of sources. Here, he throws in musical interludes by Billie Holiday and Bow Wow Wow, while the text combines the original Euripides play with excerpts from Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Berlioz's Les Troyens, the Kama Sutra, Holocaust testimonials, the Geraldo show, etc.
In reference to his affinity for classical theater, Mee has said: "The Greeks take no small problems. Rather, they begin with fratricide and matricide and say, 'Here are your raw materials, now make a civilization.'" The playwright's use of low-culture elements in his plays does not destroy the epic narratives; on the contrary, the mundane becomes almost operatic in Mee's hands. Insults that allude to sex toys seem vulgar when coming from an ordinary person, but from Helen of Troy, such jibes are damning.
A play about the spoils of war is timely. The performance I attended was immediately followed by a talk-back with members of such organizations as Amnesty International and MADRE. Although this session provided insight into the play, Trojan Women can't be described as political theater; rather, the play explores the social foundations of war and asks what drives men to violence. Director Ellen Beckerman delivers a powerful production, employing various techniques to match the play's ever-shifting tone blow for blow. Beckerman, who has produced original material in Thailand, joins the company of such people as Bertolt Brecht and Peter Brook who have made effective use of Eastern influences.
Aimee Phelan, in the roles of Hecuba and Dido, plays history's most miserable woman and most doting lover. She must bear the weight of Hecuba's sorrow, then shift gears for a sexually charged Dido; the burning of Troy does not set the mood for love, but she manages the task magnificently, her soulful voice conveying the depths of anguish and the spark of lust. That Phelan stands out in an ensemble as talented as this one is very impressive.
To do the rest of the 10-person company justice would require a separate review. Casting directors should take note of the following names: Elliot Kennerson, Sam Hurlbut, Ned Butikofer, Keith Anderson, Margot Ebling, Bricine Mitchell, Jennifer Elana Ward, Jason Woodruff, and Frances Anderson. And enthusiasts of alternative theater should take note of the young Double Helix Theater Company.