There is theater that does not aim low, and then there is theater that aims at something else altogether. This is the type of theater that is easy to make fun of, but it is also the type of theater, for some people, that offers the most thrilling insights into the possibilities of art, theater and humanity. Charles Mee, associate professor at Columbia University, belongs in this camp. And his play Trojan Women 2.0, being produced by Atlas Theatre Ensemble at the Onyx Theatre through January 31, is the most exciting piece of theater I have seen in Las Vegas.
Within what is ostensibly a re-working of Euripides’ classic play The Trojan Women (which deals with the fate of the women of Troy after the Greeks have sacked the city and won their 10-year war), Mee also uses, according to his notes on the play, “texts by the survivors of Hiroshima and of the Holocaust ... and the Geraldo show.” This mixture of high and low human experience is echoed by Mee’s inclusion of pop songs in his play. The Atlas production begins with the chorus—a group of female war survivors singing an a cappella version of the Shirelles classic “Mama Said.” The effect is distancing: a pop song about not being married conveying the horrors of a war fought over the theft of a wife, followed by monologues, in heightened language, that tell of the atrocities of war. This ain’t Jersey Boys.
Does it work? For some people, not in the slightest. The night I saw it, two people behind me walked out halfway through the first act, after laughing at it while they were there. Director Chris Mayse told me that also happened at the previous performance. But if you can accept the heightened language and reality of the piece, the rewards are huge. Hecuba (played by Maythinee Washington) spends the play trying to understand the horrors of the war. She has lost her sons, and in the course of the play loses her daughters Cassandra (Jamie Jones) and Polyxena (Sara Fontaine). One of the play’s closing scenes, as Polyxena’s dead body is brought back onstage and the women sing around it, is staggering. The weight of this moment breaks Hecuba, and she switches from calling for understanding to calling for destruction, unleashing a barrage of weaponry and poetry that drives the play to its thunderous conclusion.
The production is not perfect. For the most part the chorus is strong when together, but there are moments, particularly at the beginnings of songs, or in solos, when the singers sound a little off-key. It’s understandable; they’re singing with only wind and gunfire as accompaniment, but the barriers to suspension of disbelief are already so high, these missteps add up. Also, the songs for the show weren’t prescribed by Mee, and some of Mayse’s choices don’t work perfectly. To be fair, other choices—like Menelaus singing the soul classic “Ain’t No Sunshine”—are inspired. Also, Jack Dunagan as Menelaus and Lori Kay as Helen deliver a show-stopping duet, but I won’t spoil it here.
Mayse’s direction counts for a lot. The cast has a great handle on the material, and you can tell they’ve been well guided. The set (also by Mayse) is fantastic; it’s great to see the Onyx used so effectively.
Trojan Women 2.0 isn’t for everyone, but it is an amazing production of a truly contemporary playwright’s work and a fantastic example of what modern alternative theater can accomplish.