KPBS AIRDATE: SEPTEMBER 22, 2000
It’s been a great week for women in the theater… well, sort of. Some wonderfully juicy roles for actresses to sink their teeth into. But all the women they portray are tyrannized — suffering at the hands of men. In an ancient play, they are the spoils of war; they’ve lost brothers and fathers and sons, and they face a future as servants or concubines to their captors. In a modern play, they have been forced to forfeit their only son. But these two dramas, though they span 2500 years, share more than their themes. Both were written by men, directed by women. Both productions are heartfelt, earnest, intense. But in both cases, little trust is given to the audience. There is no subtext, no subtlety; every thought, idea and feeling is spelled out, demonstrated, declaimed. There’s no breathing-space; little room for post-show discussions, because everything has been said. As if we couldn’t see for ourselves the timelessness of the message, the relevance to our lives. At our two Tony Award-winning theaters, we get magnificent performances in unsatisfying productions.
At the Old Globe, local scholar/philanthropist Marianne McDonald has adapted “The Trojan Women,” Euripides’ fierce, anti-war tragedy, for a modern audience, unnecessarily inserting references to TV and cellphones. And if, as in her program notes, the director, Seret Scott, was informed by her memories of the Vietnam War, can’t she leave it to us to see through to the commonalities? Must the Greek victors be dressed in U.S military fatigues? Must the set be a chain-link and barbed wire POW camp, overseen by the enormous head of a Greek god? Unfortunately, I felt assaulted less by the words than by the concept.
At the La Jolla Playhouse, playwright Lee Blessing is back for the fifth time, with another of his two-handers, a talky and often pedantic piece. “A Walk in the Woods,” which centered on an American and a Russian, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. In “Going to St. Ives,” we have an English eye surgeon, and the mother of an African dictator. The whole endeavor seems too mannered, too forced. After a very slow unraveling of the story, after several pivotal plotpoints and truly gripping moments, nicely directed by Maria Mileaf, the play just trickles off emptily at the end. But Annie Smart’s set is gorgeous; she is gifted with color, here offering periwinkle in the English sitting-room and rich earthtones for the modest house in an unnamed, subSaharan country.
But what really stands out in both these productions is the performances, masterful portrayals of women under siege: at the Globe, Randy Danson as the bereft but still-regal queen Hecuba; Rayme Cornell as her cursed and crazed daughter Cassandra; Jennifer Regan as the hopeless and helpless Andromache. At La Jolla Playhouse, we get beautifully nuanced performances from L. Scott Caldwell and Amy Morton.
In both cases, the drama and the tragedy are gut-wrenching. But what these productions say about the current state of theater and its audience expectations is, for me, far more troubling and disturbing.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.