Whether they realize it or not, most people are familiar with Thalia and Melpomene, the most famous of the nine ancient Greek muses.
As the muses of comedy and tragedy, the two are typically portrayed holding their respective laughing and weeping dramatic masks and, when placed side-by-side, form the iconic symbol that to this day represents the art of theater. Unlike in modern drama, where elements of comedy and tragedy are often intermingled, the two forms were strictly separated during the theater festivals in ancient Greece.
In this spirit, the University of Rhode Island Department of Theatre kicks off its 2018-19 season with an intriguing double bill, “Women & War,” which features condensed versions of two Greek classics, Aristophanes’ comedy “Lysistrata” and Euripides’ tragedy “The Trojan Women.”
Co-sponsored by this year’s URI Honors Colloquium, titled “Reimagining Gender: Voices, Power, Action,” URI’s production is built around contemporary adaptations written by playwright Ellen McLaughlin. Inspired by the Greek dramatists, McLaughlin’s plays simultaneously seek to subvert them. Where ancient Greek society valued women’s self-control and silence, McLaughlin seeks to embody the female characters in performance and draw attention to their voices. In the process, the plays serve to confront and explore the role of women in contemporary society.
Director Kira Hawkridge is well-suited for McLaughlin’s writing, which is dense and layered, like poetry. Known for creating immersive and visceral theatrical experiences, Hawkridge’s aching and imaginative production of Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” was a highlight of last year’s theater scene in South County.
Most immediately noteworthy in this production is how Hawkridge and the ensemble blur the traditional lines of demarcation, which separate the audience from the action. Playing arena-style in the round at URI Theatre’s J-Studio, the ensemble is constantly present around the spectators. In fact, neither the opening nor the intermission are clearly defined. The company is present for a pre-show, which offers playful group renditions of Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” and Demi Lovato’s “Confident,” among other tunes, while periodically receiving the countdown to curtain from the booth.
By the time the show begins, with a brisk 45-minute version of “Lysistrata,” both ensemble and audience are warmed up. The first act sets a rowdy and burlesque tone with Aristophanes’ classic comedy. Under the leadership of Lysistrata, the women of Greece conspire to put an end to the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex from their husbands until a peace can be brokered. The original is nearly entirely built around a singular premise – as the character Cinesias exclaims – to tell “a bunch of ancient Greek dick jokes.” This abbreviated version, however, indulges but also explicitly parodies the audience’s enjoyment of the countless penis puns, as well as the famous scene where the men emerge with their erections in tow, pleading for relief and challenging the women to stay true to their slogans, “keep it zipped, ‘til they flip” and “just cross your legs and think of Greece.”
Of principal interest in this production is the extended battle of words between the self-appointed political leader Lysistrata, played by Lorraine Guerra, and the Magistrate, portrayed by J. Edward Clarke. Early in the play, Lysistrata rallies the reluctant women of Greece, declaring, “I’m not a hostess, I’m a political leader. This isn’t about chips and dip, this is about the future of our country!” The battle lines are clearly drawn later, when the magistrate dismisses the women’s protest and demands, “woman, stand aside and behave yourself.”
While allowing plenty of room for comedy, the play is clearly concerned with women’s political agency and their physical selves, as well as the tension between empowerment and submission in a patriarchy – a theme that is hammered home later with “The Trojan Women.” While the first half of URI’s production features strong individual performances, particularly by Guerra and Clarke in opposing roles, this is very much an ensemble piece. Enhanced by the arena staging, the play frequently takes on the tone of a sporting event, with the company cheering and whooping from the sidelines.
As the show transitions to the tragedy, Michael Hyde’s sound design signals a jarring shift in tone, with air raid sirens and cacophonous noises. Rather than pause for intermission, the company remains on stage, allowing spectators to come and go to a series of songs, including Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” “The Trojan Women” focuses on a bleak and ominous moment after the city of Troy has been sacked. The women of the city await their fate and are acutely aware that the lives they have known will be lost, as they will be taken as prisoners and spoils of war.
The story plays on the contrasts and affinities between four female characters who have traditionally been reduced to voiceless icons. The women are led by Hecuba, the queen of Troy, played with remarkable force by Emily Carter. The cursed Cassandra, portrayed by Abigail Dufresne, emerges in madness, reveling in the vision of her own demise. Mary Mullane’s Helen is particularly striking, fully aware of her status, declaring, “I am a piece of property. Something to be stolen, hidden, rescued or restored. A statue, a symbol, nothing more.” Emily Turtle’s portrayal of Andromache is incredibly sensitive and affecting. As she attempts to cope with the new reality, she states, “it is only my body that can be owned. My mind, my spirit belong to me.” This dichotomy is drawn out explicitly in the staging, played on a platform filled with sand. As the women discuss their fate, there are constant tactile interactions with the sand, with strips of fabric and clothing, and each other. The tone is both defiant and resolute.
Design elements, including David T. Howard’s costumes and Renee Surprenant Fitzgerald’s set, support Hawkridge’s vision, which is minimal and evocative. As incisive and relevant as the show’s themes are, the production’s agenda, to the extent that it has one, is both political and aesthetic. Where the first act resembled a sporting event, the second act is ritualistic. Movement, chanting and song – including original music by Emily Turtle – interact with the poetry and prose. After the first act’s comedy, the play’s central themes make an impact on multiple levels, at once intellectual, physical and emotional.
Just as the ancient Greeks believed that drama had a vital role in society, URI Theatre’s production of “Women & War” calls on the ancient muses of comedy and tragedy to connect us with themes that are still relevant today. The result is resonant and enthralling, and sure to linger with audiences after they leave the theater.
For more information on “Women & War” and the URI Department of Theatre’s season, visit web.uri.edu/theatre/current-season. For showtimes, see the Happenings listings on Page C2.