Even if you’ve brushed up on your Euripides, the Jersey City Theater Center’s production of the ancient Greek tragedy “Trojan Women” will leave you scratching your head. But that’s not to say it won’t leave you moved as well.
This ultra-modernist interpretation, directed by JCTC artistic director Olga Levina, ignores traditional notions of time, place, gender and dialogue; it delivers almost the entire play in languages other than English — Russian, French, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew and more. The viewer becomes forced to respond to the drama through the emotions communicated by the cast.
For this multi-media production, the “black box” Merseles Theater (which adjoins White Eagle Hall in downtown Jersey City) has been decorated with white shapes, onto which are projected varying images and text. Other than a few large blocks and cones, there is no set; instead, the projections create the illusion of a prison or the ocean. Images of war, deprivation and refugees from around the world bring a universality to the story. Euripides might have been writing, 400 years before the birth of Christ, about the aftermath of the fall of Troy (many centuries earlier), but the play’s powerful themes remain timeless.
The play begins as the elderly Hecuba (Tatyana Zbirovskaya) sings a sad song in Russian. A door opens, and a group of burly men dressed in modern black suits enter. Two of them are the gods Athena and Poseidon, who discuss how to punish the Trojans for crimes committed during the war. Athena is played by a man, and this is the only part of the play in English.
A group of women, dressed in flesh-colored garments, are brought in bound by a heavy rope, like slaves. These are the Trojan women.
The women take turns discussing how their lives have been torn apart by war, each in a different language. Sub-titles flash on the screens, giving us an idea of their lamentations. Several of the women sing, all in different languages, with beautiful melodies that suggest grief, sadness, loss. A blonde woman enters with a young black girl; they sing together. The playbill tells us this is Andromache, whose youngest daughter will be sacrificed to Achilles. Helen of Troy (Dina Manganaris) performs a violent, sexual pas de deux with Menelaus (Kevin Terwin) before she is taken back to Greece, where execution awaits. The women, unable to contain their fury and frustration, turn on Helen and violently assault her. Hecuba mourns the fall of Troy, the loss of her home and her family.
Without the program, even with a familiarity with Euripides, it’s almost impossible to follow any of this as it’s happening. What does come across are the horrors of war, and especially the way it victimizes women and children. In today’s world, with refugees and immigration at the forefront of our political dialogue, these images hit home even more powerfully, and this ancient play couldn’t be more timely.
“Trojan Women” will be presented at Merseles Studios, 339 Newark Ave., Jersey City, Thursdays to Sundays through Nov. 18. Doors open at 7:30 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and at 5:30 p.m. on Sundays. Visit jctcenter.org.