When a Cal Poly Theatre and Dance Department play is directed by Professor Josh Machamer, you can count on it being innovative and unique. With “Trojan Women 2.0” by Charles Mee, he has chosen a cutting-edge project and made the staging integral to its gripping nature.
When you approach the Spanos Theatre entrance you are directed to a back entrance, the stage door. The audience is seated behind the curtain in the backstage area, where an assortment of chairs is arranged seemingly at random, and you are told you may choose any chair and may rotate it around as long as you stay within a small section marked on the floor.
And, indeed, you will twist around as you follow the action. This is true “theater in the round,” with scenes taking place on the four walls, on small video screens in corners, and movement up and down through the middle of the audience and all around the floor. It is high drama, and the audience is embedded in the midst of it.
As loud, amplified drumming and music fill the space, dark-clad soldiers with guns open prison gates at the back of the area and, creating an atmosphere of fear, force the principal women onto set pieces around the walls where their stories will unfold. Each scene is set atop a pile of rubble, representing the detritus of war. Later, uniformed women identified in the program as Caretakers dress the women in elaborate and unusual costumes, readying them for their future fates.
The subject is war, its horrors and its aftermath. The topic is, unfortunately, timeless, but the understanding of the play will be easier when you know the basic facts of the Trojan War from Greek mythology. There is a brief explanation in the program. The war was waged against the city of Troy by the Greeks after Paris of Troy stole Helen from her husband Menelaus, the king of Sparta. The Greeks lay waste to Troy, and this play focuses on a group of women prisoners who have survived.
As they recount the horrors and losses and fear their fates and those of their loved ones at the hands of their conquerors, they expound on the nature of war itself. A Greek chorus-style ensemble of women, moving around through the audience, enhances the drama with narration, bits of poetry and moments of song.
The tales of an ancient war mixed with the modern imagery of soldiers and guns emphasizes that war is not ancient history, but contemporary reality as well. Mentions of television, media and 1980s music pop up now and then to reinforce the generic nature of war.
The Trojan women are identified as the spoils of war, and are to be assigned as slaves or concubines to enemy heroes. Hecuba mourns her son and soon learns that her daughter is to be sacrificed on the grave of Achilles to join him in death. The women’s roles demand high drama, emoting with screaming, sobbing, and shouting, and the actors do it well. Hecuba is played by Brigitte Losey, Katharine Epstein is Polyxena, Karlee Benner is Andromache, and Rachel Murphy plays Cassandra. Katie Matten portrays Helen of Troy, the woman who started the war, and she is good as she creates a sly manipulator trying to defend herself from the wrath of the others.
Chris Riordan is good as Talthybius, the emissary from Greece who tells the women of their fates. Imperious and cold, he is dressed in a dark modern suit and a cape, adding to the mixed imagery of the piece. Torin Lusebrink has a similar demeanor as Helen’s husband, Menelaus. Gage Greenspan is Aeneas, a young man who remained hidden during the war and emerges as an innocent near the end to ask some important final questions about war itself.
This is an intense and fascinating theater piece laced with thoughts, questions and observations about war. It is provocative and, in the end, sad as we realize that the ancient mythological war is not unlike the real wars of today. It is made more powerful by its staging, which is as gripping as its message.
IF YOU GO
"Trojan Women 2.0"
8 p.m. today through Saturday
Spanos Theatre, Cal Poly
$12 to $20
756-4849 and www.pacslo.org