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Ancient tale of woe stirs modern souls: “Hecuba” retranslated and revived

By Maxwell Price

Section: Arts

April 24, 2009

<i>PHOTO BY Mike Lovett/Brandeis University</i>

PHOTO BY Mike Lovett/Brandeis University

]“Let’s not make a Greek tragedy out of this.”

We’ve all heard that weary plea so many times that when an opportunity arises to actually experience a classic dramatic work from that heralded genre, most of us tend to flinch involuntarily. Why would we force ourselves to sit through agonizing hours of pathetic heroes lamenting their fate and cursing the gods? Don’t we all have enough misfortune in our own lives that we don’t need to see painfully demonstrative expressions of grief portrayed on the stage?

By the time Euripides’ “Hecuba,” the final production of the 2008-09 Brandeis Theater Company season, reached its bloody, piercing conclusion, I couldn’t help but rethink my assumptions about this particular theatrical form. While I had assumed the actors would display the kind of histrionics audiences today might find unendurable, the heightened emotional turmoil of the personae struck a very real chord in me. I was drawn under the peculiar spell of Eric Hill’s production within minutes, and as I tried to jerk myself back into reality after leaving the Spingold Theater, I found that the world of the stage had left its mark on this foolish mortal.

“Hecuba” tells the story of the titular former Queen of Troy (played by Brandeis faculty member Liz Terry) reduced to a state of “wretchedness” after the Greek conquest of her land. Surrounded by other enslaved Trojan women, Hecuba faces a constant stream of personal calamities, from the Greeks’ sacrifice of her daughter, Polyxena (Tanya Dougherty GRAD) to the murder of her son, Polydorous (Jesse Hinson GRAD) by his traitorous guardian, Polymestor, King of Thrace (Equiano Mosieri GRAD).

Euripides is frequently said to have been ahead of his time when he wrote his great dramatic masterpieces, and “Hecuba” is certainly proof that the boldness of his ability to challenge government authority and his willingness to bring out the humanity of marginalized peoples was groundbreaking. But to this critic’s mind, the most extraordinary aspect of Euripides play is that even within the idealized world of Greek drama, he manages to craft characters that have the power to transfix modern audiences. The actors invigorated the roles with raw energy tempered by formal beauty.

Terry as the title character was certainly the most experienced actor of the group, but she was clearly more interested in crafting a three-dimensional portrait of a suffering woman than satiating her own ego. Though I wouldn’t call her performance understated, she displayed such deft control of her body, voice and expressive power that she blended perfectly into the overall cast.

Dougherty as Polyxena brought her own charisma and emotive malleability to a role that could have easily been overdone.

And in a show that emphasized the plight of tortured women, Mosieri as the villainous Polymestor explored the dark side of the male tyrant with wonderful depth.

Eric Hill’s production, while never shying away from contemporary implications, thankfully refrained from “hitting the mule over the head with the two by four of consciousness…” as his program notes hinted. The staging, which featured deft and creative blocking of the chorus, gave the show an almost ensemble feel despite highly individualized performances. The production values were high, and the contrast between the eye-popping splendor of “Siddhartha’s” design scheme and the relatively low-key but symbolically rich costuming seemed appropriate. The emphasis was on the human bodies themselves in “Hecuba,” which were stunning.

So the next time someone complains about making life into a Greek tragedy, remember that while you’d never want to live in the world Euripides creates, there’s nothing like a dose of “Hecuba” to make you appreciate what the ancient dramatic arts still have to offer.

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