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The Trojan Women

The recitative tedium of ancient drama that's often off-putting to modern auds is bone-pared in "The Trojan Women," Ellen McLaughlin's 11th adaptation so far of a classical Greek work.

The recitative tedium of ancient drama that’s often off-putting to modern auds is bone-pared in “The Trojan Women,” Ellen McLaughlin’s 11th adaptation so far of a classical Greek work. At less than an hour long, this compact text offers a potent antiwar cri de coeur in semi-retired Aurora Theater Company founder Barbara Oliver’s premiere staging.

The premiere of a much-changed text, that is: McLaughlin originally developed her “Women” for the Balkan Theater Project in the 1990s, using non-pro Serb, Croatian and Bosnian Muslim war refugees who had landed as actors in New York City. That was in English as well as the performers’ native languages; this professional-debut version sports just smidgens of Farsi and Croatian, considerable restructuring, and additions including the previously cut role of Helen of Troy (Nora el Samahy).

Clad in a mink coat and Jackie O. sunglasses, Helen makes a notably glam, frosty entrance, boasting “I too loved this city.”

Her presence is gallingly unwelcome to Queen Hecuba (Carla Spindt) and the chorus of six — clad variably as modern-day student, nurse, party girl, etc. — representing Troy’s surviving female populace. They blame this smug temptress for starting the war that left their men dead, city ruined and their own future fated for permanent exile as prostitutes and slaves.

“Slavery is new to you … no wonder you chafe under it,” Helen responds to their rage. Seeing herself as a piece of property long traded among powerful men, Helen has no sympathy for the women and, although she is dragged off to be marred by the physical abuse of Trojan femmes, she still has angry dignity.

The proud queen’s “mad” daughter Cassandra (Sarah Nealis) races onstage long enough to deliver a ranting, not-so-mad monologue.

More effective is the ensuing appearance by Hecuba’s newly widowed daughter-in-law Andromache (an intense, Juliet Stephenson-like Emilie Talbot), who protests “I’m still young … I will find a way to love life, even in slavery.” But the ensemble’s clucking over the hope her babe-in-arms son raises for Troy’s restored glory is crushed by an automatic-rifle-bearing Greek soldier (Matthew Purdon).

The “most beautiful city in the world” in flames behind them, the women finally must accept their fates. Early warnings from Poseidon (Julian Lopez-Morillas) were apt: These “sleeping mothers, wives and daughters” should never have woken from a slumber as yet innocent of Trojan Horse slaughter.

Faithful to Euripides primarily in that it presents successive panels of drama rather than an integrated modern dramatic whole, McLaughlin’s linguistically fluid, poetical howl of anguish succeeds largely because — at just under an hour — it’s so tightly wound.

Oliver’s staging amplifies its virtues via bits of chant and choreography (by MaryBeth Cavanaugh) that are not too performance-arty.

Cast is a tad uneven but mostly strong and game. Jim Cave’s lighting design sheds shifting Mediterranean colors on John Iacovelli’s peculiar set design of five boxy chutes with a balcony overhead. But the occasional echo-chamber effects and electric-guitar squall of Chris Houston’s sound design risk heavy-handedness.

The Trojan Women

Aurora Theater, San Francisco; 150 seats; $50 top

  • Production: An Aurora Theater presentation of a play in one act by Ellen McLaughlin, inspired by Euripides. Directed by Barbara Oliver.
  • Crew: Set, John Iancovelli; costumes, Anna Oliver; lighting, Jim Cave; sound, Chris Houston; choreographer, MaryBeth Cavanaugh; production stage manager, June Palladino. Opened, reviewed April 10, 2008. Running time: 55 MIN.
  • Cast: Poseidon - Julian Lopez-Morillas Hecuba - Carla Spindt Helen - Nora el Samahy Cassandra - Sarah Nealis Andromache - Emilie Talbot Talthybius - Matthew Purdon <b>With:</b> Erika Antonsen, Siobhan Doherty, Gwen Loeb, Charisse Loriaux, Sepideh Makabi, Tara Tomicevic.
  • Music By: