We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Rockaby, Fragments de Théâtre II, Cascando, Catastrophe, Come
By Samuel Beckett
Directed by Monica Neagoy
and Didier Rousselet
Produced by Le Neon at Rosslyn
Spectrum to May 2
Even without this week’s barrage of front-page photos of weeping refugees staggering across Balkan borders, Shakespeare Theatre patrons would be hard pressed to watch the opening moments of JoAnne Akalaitis’ modern-dress mounting of The Trojan Women without thinking of events in Kosovo.
A helicopter’s roar fills the auditorium’s darkness and is cut by screams as the dull glow of a city in flames illuminates an industrial warehouse. Soldiers in riot helmets shove blindfolded female captives through a gate, and pandemonium reigns as the blindfolds are removed and the women realize this tomblike space is their holding cell. Shrieking and sobbing, they scatter through the building, raising arms to protect their shaven heads from blows, climbing girders or huddling in craters in the concrete, desperately seeking invisibility. Smirking soldiers stumble out from behind a wall, one of them pulling up his pants, leaving behind a naked woman, ashen and wailing, who rushes to a spigot to wash off the residue of rape.
Visually arresting, aurally overwhelming, this sequence promises a visceral interpretation of Euripides’ tragedy that doesn’t really carry through thereafter, but collectors of vivid theatrical imagery won’t care much. Akalaitis is known for her ability to encapsulate whole worlds in a dramatic gesture, and there are plenty more where this first one came from.
No sooner has the initial commotion died down than a snarling Poseidon appears at the lip of the stage in an electric-blue suit to brush in details of the Greek military triumph over Troy and the ethnic cleansing now under way. He’s then joined by the goddess Athena for a sort of deus-ex-standup-routine in which they decide, almost capriciously, to sink the Greek ships as they sail home. And once this deadly retribution has been ordained, Troy’s Queen Hecuba emerges from what looks like a filthy pile of feathers to begin Euripides’ long moan of a lamentation for the horrors of the war just ended. For that’s what The Trojan Women is at heart: the agony of defeat articulated by women who’ve had no part in their society’s battle.
It is Hecuba, played with down-to-earth majesty by Petronia Paley, who does most of the articulating. In D. Nicholas Rudall’s conversational translation, she argues with the young Greek officer (a nicely conflicted Andrew Long) who delivers the details of her people’s enslavement. And when the gravity of their situation sinks in, she rails against the gods while a chorus of her subjects moans backup in aching harmonies devised by composer Lisa Bielawa.
Fueling their communal fury are Hecuba’s mad, virginal daughter Cassandra (Opal Alladin), who’ll now be a Greek general’s whore, Andromache (Socorro Santiago), who has lost a husband and will soon lose a son to the slaughter, and an unrepentant Helen (Elizabeth Long), the self-serving siren over whom this war has been fought. Each will have her moment in the spotlight before returning focus to Hecuba, whose passionate lamentation is, after all, the stuff of legend.
Akalaitis punctuates the grieving with quite a few startling tableaussoldiers holding a doomed boy aloft in an unnerving evocation of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima; a mock courtroom in which Helen plays defendant, Hecuba plays prosecutor, and Helen’s vengeful but still lovesick ex-husband Menelaus (Jonathan Fried) plays judge and jury. There are times, especially in the first half of the evening, when patrons barely have time to acknowledge the aptness of one modern-day parallel before another comes along to supplant it.
The director also injects more humor than you might expect into the proceedings. But for all the visual pyrotechnics and attitudinal surprises she brings to the piece, she never, after that harrowing opening, rouses much in the way of emotion. Part of the reason is formalGreek tragedy, with its chanted choruses and declamatory speeches, doesn’t really lend itself to the sentimentalizing that tends to open contemporary tear ducts. But there’s also a disconnect every so often between the styles Akalaitis imposes on the piece and the material itself. Some of the choral passages, for instance, are staged enough like musical comedy numbers that the horror expressed in their lyrics is all but eviscerated.
Still, if the events depicted on stage sometimes seem more numbing than affecting, you have to admire the postmodern, industrial dystopia in which they take place. Paul Steinberg’s massively solid warehouse, with its metal desks and chairs heaped in corners, Jennifer Tipton’s acid illumination, which makes everything and everyone seem covered with mold, and Doey Lüthi’s persuasively war-worn costumes all contribute to the director’s up-to-date vision of wartime horror. As does, of course, the timing of the opening, just days after bombing runs began in a war that echoes the regional hatreds Euripides outlined some 24 centuries ago.
We’re going to be awash in Samuel Beckett this month. Just one season after Studio Theatre rode a snappy, nontraditionally cast Waiting for Godot to national headlines and packed houses, two local companies are mounting simultaneous celebrations in the old absurdist’s honor. From now until the beginning of May, Le Neon is presenting 10 of his short works in a pair of five-play evenings. Scena Theatre’s fest, which starts next week, boasts visiting troupes from the West Coast and Europe and will present 11 works in five evenings.
While there’s some overlap (patrons will have three separate opportunities to be either astonished or baffled by Krapp’s Last Tape) there will also be much diversity on display, often within individual programs. Show 1 at Le Neon, for instance, could hardly be more scattered in terms of content and performance style.
The dramatic part of the evening is already in progress in the Spectrum lobby as patrons enter. A womangray in every particular, from makeup to garb to hair to expressionrocks almost imperceptibly in a rocking chair at the lobby’s center as she listens to a taped voice droning the words of Rockaby:
“Sitting at her window. Quiet at her window. Only window, facing other windows. Only other windows. All eyes. All sighs…Time she stopped. Time she stopped.”
Whenever the voice pauses, the woman moans, “More,” and it starts again. On entering the auditorium, patrons discover three clones of this woman doing the same thing. When the recorded voice finally stops, so does the rocking. Memories are finished. Last gasps are gasped. The light fades.
Four other Beckett plays follow, and they’re every bit as cryptic in both English and French (with simultaneous English translation provided on headsets). Fragments de Théâtre II finds two men debating whether a third should be allowed to jump out the window. The duo sit at identical desks, rifling through notes from the suicidal man’s friends, as he stands poised at a ledge behind them. Their patter is very nearly a vaudeville routine; the potential suicide never moves.
Cascando is a radio piece involving a storyteller named the Opener and a voice (in this case two voices, speaking in French and English) telling his tale. With the performers who play the voices ensconced in ribbed sleeves of fabric, Le Neon’s version of the sketch suggests a dialogue for animated trash cans. The Opener keeps pushing them to retell his story, and they do, with varying degrees of excitement and despair.
The evening’s most obviously political piece is Catastrophe. It features a dictatorial theater director who, with the aid of a comically put-upon assistant, manipulates a stage image until he has transformed a comparatively dapper actor into what looks like a praying concentration camp refugee. The piece was written in 1982 to protest the jailing of Czech dissident playwright Vaclav Havel. This play is followed by Come and Go, in which three women discuss trivialities as they shift places and link hands in recurring patterns.
Like all of Beckett’s work, the plays are somewhat opaque, but the physically stylized approach Le Neon always takes to stagecraftmask and mimetic movement being troupe specialtiesis helpful in maintaining audience involvement. Which is not to suggest the show is a visual romp, only that Didier Rousselet, who plays the actor-cum-refugee in Catastrophe, and one or two of his compatriots are compellingly disciplined and intriguing to watch. At the preview I attended, not all the performances were so fully formed, with the result that a couple of the sketches seemed endless.
Still, if it’s easy to understand why these pieces (except Rockaby) are so infrequently performed, it’s instructive to see them. The chance to compare them with other interpretations in fairly short order (Fragments de Théâtre and Catastrophe are also in Scena’s fest) is an added dividend. CP