Are we just so saturated with tales of rape and violence that we're immune to it, or is it the stunting steel of the cage boxing in The Classical Theatre of Harlem's ensemble in Trojan Women that makes the work so disaffecting? There's some questionable acting in play as well, with women going through their gripes as if ticking off a grocery list, and the men acting like thoughtless brutes, but at heart, Alfred Preisser's adaptation (and direction) of the classic Euripedes play comes across like Cassandra's predictions -- filled with truth that is largely ignored.
The show takes place in several stages: in the first, we meet the prisoners, led by the dethroned Hecuba (Lizan Mitchell), her mad daughter, Cassandra (well played with equal parts resignation and disgust by Tryphena Wade), and her daughter-in-law, the ex-princess, Andromache (a fierce Linda Kuriloff). Off to the side, in a separate cage, Helen (a willowy Zainab Jah) lounges atop a broken pillar, flaunting her beauty even in defeat. As the women keen, rattling the mesh of the cage wall, they are visited by a diplomat, Talthybius (Michael Early), who in period clothing, delivers with legalese and political clout the news of their impending "marriages" (read: slavery). Early's performance, filled with restraint and verbal slips, is the highlight of the show, a chance to see modern double-talk set against classical tragedy, and a way in which to bring the crimes of the past into context with those of the present. As women are carried away, one by one, to the ships, victorious Meneleus (Ty Jones) confronts his wife. Unfortunately, his rage is overshadowed by the chorus of raging women, and Mr. Jones remains strangely desexed and detached, much like the play, even as Helen wraps herself and her words around him in an effort to save her own life.
At one point, Meneleus shouts, "Justice? That's just a word with big ideas attached to it." It's the problem that Preisser runs into with his script: the big ideas aren't conveyed with any sense of tragedy, and what should be a cumulative effect of defeats, an embarrassment of losses, becomes just another day. There's no sense of the ten years spent battling, and it almost seems like winning and losing are the same. The men may carry guns, and wear shoes, but save for a few women wearing black stockings to symbolize the absence of limbs, they're very much the same. Furthermore, where there are big ideas, there are bigger generalizations, and the specifics (citations of violence) are listed at a remove from the plot -- more importantly, from any need to speak.
By the end of Trojan Women, these much-abused women are mostly as nameless as they were at the start. The lack of personality in much of the ensemble, or the similarity of performance (blending into a bland wall of sound), holds the show back from its potential, as does the stifling set. We're accused by the actors of being complicit in their tragedy, but at the same time, we're protected by prison walls: at best, the show illustrates how little we feel for those outside our daily life. Better, I think, to step outside the box and shake things up a little.