Even before the play begins, sentries in camouflage fatigues guard the refugee camp. Fenced off with wire, the area is littered with the detritus of a defeated nation after a devastating 10-year battle. What were once residences and industry are now piles of cinder blocks, plumbling, and unrecognizable machine parts. Two television sets have mysteriously survived this destruction only to play nothing but endless cycles of images of war.
Amid the garbage some hand-made toys are still left standing. But these are not dolls or trucks. These toys are action figures of warriors and heroes, all now dead. Husbands, fathers, brothers, sons have all been killed in the war. The only survivers of this once-proud nation are the women and children, living in despair and forced to breath the stench of the corpses of their loved ones.
The air is thick with ashes
and a foul smell like that of cooking meat,
except that we know it's human flesh, and gag,
and try to hold our breath.
The conquerors stride about in military dress with sparkling medals and token acknowledgments of their own cruelty. But this war is not yet over. The remaining women will be divied up as spoils among the victors to become slaves and concubines, but there's still more: To ensure their safe passage home, to prevent retaliation, and to assuage the dead, two children must first be sacrified.
This is world of The Trojan Women in a riveting production by the Franklin Stage Company in Franklin, New York. The play portrays the plight of the women of Troy after their defeat by the Greeks. (Among the toys on the set is a horse that reminds us how the Greeks got into the city.) But this is not the famous Trojan Women of Euripides. This is the Trojan Women of first-century Roman stoic philosopher Seneca, whose tragedies notoriously portray (as James Miller recently wrote in Examined Lives), "a chaotic world of infinite cruelty."
Director Mollye Maxner has trimmed down the play, combined it with material from two other Seneca plays (in translations by David Slavitt), and rendered it in the intimate Franklin Stage space with a fierce intensity of vision. This is a Trojan Women where mothers are tied to chairs, mouths muffled with duct tape, splashed with gasoline, and shown photographs of torture victims, and where a pistol is held to the head of a 12-year old girl. Yet none of this directly contradicts the brutality of Seneca's language. The overall impact is powerful, gripping, unnerving, unsettling, but — as we know from thousands of years of history and the barbarity of wars — not a tiny bit exaggerated. As the most famous passage of The Trojan Women asks,
What can men and women endure?
There ought to be limits.
A heart should break but doesn't,
keeps on with its idiot beating,
and adds to the torture.
This is the second Franklin Stage production I've seen, and in both this and Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit ealier this summer, the space was used to great effect by putting the set on the floor in front of the stage, and having the audience surround it on three sides (including bleachers on the stage), making for both an intimate and intense setting.
Among the superb ensemble of actors, I want to call out Carmela Marner as Hecuba (Queen of Troy, widow of Priam and mother of Hector, both dead in the war) consumed with anguish and revenge; Natalie Martin as Hector's widow Andromache, desperately trying to save the life of her infant boy; Peter Gaitens as a foppishly cruel Ulysses; and Elizabeth Hope Williams as Hecuba's daughter Casandra (a character brought in from the Seneca play Agamemnon), whose visions and prophecies are accompanied by what must be a bruising series of bodily convulsions.
The entrance of Kathryn Saffell as Helen of Troy late in the play is almost comic relief, wearing platform shoes, a miniskirt with a zipper up the front, and a "whatever" attitude, all the time recording a video of herself from her cell phone. (But we all know how nasty such a woman can be.)
This is not your standard summer regional theater. Judging from the two productions I saw this summer, Franklin Stage Company is eager to take risks and has the talent to make them succeed.
Performances of The Trojan Women will continue until September 4. Did I mention that admission is free?