Oct. 14 2009 12:00 AM


Director David Furumoto states up-front in his director’s notes that Michigan State University Theatre Department’s production of “Trojan Women” is “an experiment in bringing together two great world theatre traditions.” It’s an ambitious experiment, to be sure, and ambitiousness leads to either great success or a mighty fall. As an educational experience, the play is the former. As entertainment, it is the latter.

“Trojan Women” is a classical Greek play that tells the story of the mothers and widows of the great city of Troy in the immediate aftermath of the Trojan War. The dethroned queen of Troy, Hecuba, tells the story of the war with help from a chorus of grieving women.

Furumoto takes this Greek tragedy and presents it in the highly stylized Japanese theatrical traditions of kabuki, bunraku and noh. Emotions are heightened through a delivery of dialogue that could easily be construed as overly dramatic by Western audiences. The make-up style of kabuki is used to distinguish the faces of the downtrodden women from the frighteningly imposing men who dispassionately decide their fates.

As students, the cast benefits from the opportunity to practice the vocal and movement techniques of Japanese theater, with some actors embracing it fully. As Hecuba, Leslie Hull has the largest part in the play, and she maintains the wailing vocal style throughout, as she laments the loss of her kin and country.

Ross Egan portrays the famous beauty Helena, the casting choice presumably a nod to the era of kabuki when male actors played female roles. Egan, wrapped in a stunning virginal gown with crimson accents, moves elegantly and speaks with coy deviousness. While all of Kristina Miller’s costumes and Eric Franzen’s wig and make-up work are excellent, Egan’s ensemble and visage are the capstone of their work.

The Chorus members excel in snapping and twirling their fans, a critical prop that serves as a weapon and a shield, protecting them briefly from their impending doom and accenting their storytelling. As Greek herald Talthybius, Andrew Harvey conveys internal turmoil well when delivering increasingly bad news, but he struggles to stay in style vocally and with his posture.

Puppet work, an element commonly found in bunraku theater, is employed in a tense scene in which Talthybius delivers the news to the women that Hector’s young son Astyanax must be killed to prevent him from growing up and avenging his father’s death. The puppet’s appearance may have been jarring at first, but by the time he was wrenched from his grandmother’s arms, the audience at Tuesday’s performance had accepted him as a real child and reacted audibly to his death.

For all of the good that comes with melding the Greek and Japanese traditions, several logistical issues prevent the production from being enjoyable to watch for anyone other than those seated in the center section. Furumoto appropriately employs Japanese music and percussive sound effects, but the placement of the speakers and the volume at which the music is played drowns out much of the dialogue. The delivery of lines in the kabuki style takes some getting used to, and until one gets the patterns down, even more dialogue is lost. Thankfully, the plot is well known, even by those whose study of Greek mythology is limited to the Brad Pitt vehicle “Troy.”

The most challenging aspect, though, is enduring more than two hours of shrill wailing, which makes the women seem annoyingly pathetic instead of simply defeated and demoralized. One wonders if the Greeks are masochists for wanting to load their ships up with these buzz kill slaves. The vocal style lengthens the delivery of dialogue, and after two and a half hours, hara-kiri starts to sound like a good idea.

Combining the Eastern and Western traditions is an interesting concept, and it gives the audience a chance to learn about the Japanese against the backdrop of a familiar story. The best advice for those willing to brave this challenging piece: arrive early and sit in the center section. Hecuba should only be referring to the Greeks when she says, “They speak so cryptically and incomprehensively.”  Oh me, if only it were so.

‘Trojan Women’

By Euripides, translated by Richmond Lattimore

Through Oct. 18

7:30 p.m. Wednesday & Thursday

8 p.m. Friday & Saturday

2 p.m. Sunday

Arena Theatre, MSU


1 (800) WHARTON