It ought to be inscribed in stone somewhere: Productions of ancient Greek plays live or die by their translations. A translator must do delicate work, honoring the subtle intricacies of the language while remembering that these lines will be performed, not just studied in a classroom. That crucial sense of theater gets lost in Janet Lembke and Kenneth J. Reckford’s 1984 translation of “Hecuba,” which leaves the Pearl Theater’s current production of Euripides’ play to smother on its own stuffiness.
Granted, the text is tricky to begin with, since Hecuba (Joanne Camp), the fallen Trojan queen, spends most of the show’s 90 minutes keening helplessly while her daughter is sacrificed and her son’s body washes up on a beach. There’s not much action here — not until the queen takes revenge on Polymestor (Dominic Cuskern), who murdered her son — so the play is essentially a series of piteous speeches.
Director Shepard Sobel takes a reasonable approach to staging the wailing, planting Camp and the other Trojan mourners center stage so that our focus is on their complex speeches. If their words were thrilling to hear, that might be an excellent plan.
But Lembke and Reckford’s clunky work defies comprehension, let alone emotional involvement. It’s hard to sympathize with Hecuba’s plight when you’re forced to parse phrases like, “No human heart is set so hard that hearing the great music of your dirge, your keening, would not bring tears.” What? That’s an impossible sentence to read, let alone hear spoken from a chorus of women in robes.
The Chorus (Rachel Botchan, Vinie Burrows, and Carol Schultz) also proves that this production’s lifelessness is not entirely rooted in the script. They are an indistinguishable lot, delivering their tirades against Greece with blank voices and blanker expressions. Even when they sing their lines, the women remain monotonous by staying off-key and out of harmony.
The same flatness also mutes the rest of the cast. Sobel probably directed his thesps to save their big emotions for Polymestor’s comeuppance, but they’re so reserved they seem disinterested.
Camp, especially, wanders through her role. She barely makes eye contact with her castmates, even when begging Odysseus (a wooden John Livingstone Rolle) not to sacrifice her daughter. Her physicality is equally uncommitted. Collapsing with grief over her son’s death, she falls in half time, careful to land first on her thigh, then on her backside. It’s as though she were still rehearsing the move with a fight choreographer.
Unsurprisingly, Camp can’t rouse herself from this somnambulance to produce the necessary fervor for the climax. She may raise her voice in vengeance, but it’s far too late to raise the energy in the room.