David Wilson Brown as Agamemnon and Patricia Boyette as Artemis in The Greeks
The city of Troy may or may not have existed, and the protracted war that was fought in and around it is almost certainly the stuff of legend, not history. What is not in doubt, however, is the impact that the myths that grew out of the Trojan legacy have had on succeeding generations. That may be, of course, because the horrors of war have continued to abide, and the need for their expiation never seems to diminish.
Madison Repertory Theatre's production of The Greeks, performed in partnership with the University of Wisconsin's Department of Theatre and Drama, avoids the pitfall of trying to portray the epic scale of the Trojan Wars, choosing instead to focus on the terrible toll that those events inflicted on ordinary people. And, in that sense, the production is a success. By personalizing the crushing impact of the war the play reaches its audience in ways that mere bombast and bloodletting could not.
Written by John Barton and Kenneth Cavender, the script is drawn from a variety of classical sources, principally Euripides and Homer. Although it is occasionally wordy (the necessary exposition is filled with references that seem impenetrable at times) the text is powerfully and intelligently structured. It is set in trilogy form, with each section describing a different aspect of the war and its effect, beginning with the appalling choice that the egotistical King Agamemnon (ably played by David Wilson-Brown) must make in order to fulfill his vow to protect Greece. "The trap," he says, "is in necessity." And the action is, indeed, a series of traps from which all the characters must either seek escape or walk knowingly into.
The superb costume design by Maggie Foss creates a visual feast, complemented by Matt Albrecht's moody lighting design. Unfortunately, the production is hampered by the incessant soundtrack provided by Joe Cerqua. This is not Cerqua's fault (he always does excellent work for the Rep); it is a choice that director Tom Blair has imposed. Live theatre is not a movie. Sound should be an organic and natural part of the performance, not a persistent sonic thrum.
Blair's decision to use the Suzuki method of movement and expression is likewise distracting. Several of the actors clearly do not feel comfortable with the highly stylized approach, and speaking directly to the audience, rather than to each other, diminishes much of the emotional impact of the script.
But there are several very strong performances and Blair's "doubling" of characters is an inspired choice. For example, Helen (over whom all this military madness is supposedly unleashed) also appears as a slave girl at the center of a sexual tug-of-war. Both roles are expertly handled by Leia Espericueta, as are the dual personalities portrayed by Stephanie Monday and (especially) Clare Arena Haden. Also notable are Steve Wojtas as an uncharacteristically tormented Achilles; Olivia Dawson, playing Andromache at full throttle; and Rebecca A. Chicoine as the noble and doomed Iphigenia.
In the final stanza of the trilogy Agamemnon stands in the smoking ruins of the city it has taken him a decade to destroy. Looking balefully around, he ponders what he has wrought. "I never thought I would be here," he says. His inner conflict in discovering that nothing has turned out the way he expected is a parallel to the production: There are, to be sure, soaring structures to be admired, but the rubble around them is inescapable.