SALT LAKE CITY — With its slowly unwinding domestic tragedy, Sophocles’s Women of Trachis has been breaking audience’s hearts for more than 2000 years. I can’t imagine a lovelier production or a more effective production than this one, adapted and directed by Javen Tanner, for the Classical Greek Theatre Festival, presented by Westminster College.
Spencer Brown’s beautifully simple set of a barren tree next to a chopped stump make a powerful symbol representing the broken husband and wife whose failed marriage dominate this finely structured plot. The aging queen Deianeira loves her unconquered husband Herakles desperately and longs for his return from war. She is first relieved to learn that he is headed home, but is devastated when she encounters a young war-bride whom he has sent ahead of his arrival. An effort to magically restore his affections goes terribly wrong on the advice of a dead centaur because, well, this is a Greek tragedy.
Though husband and wife share no stage time, as Deianeira, April Fossen’s anxiety and desire for her character’s husband and personal savior is palpable through her expressive movements and voice. She brings the fears and frustrations still shared by women in a modern patriarchal society to life. Her every move on stage is supported by a fluid and beautifully unified chorus of women who alternately comfort, confront, and counsel her. This five member chorus’s emotional singing, precise and powerful choreography and shared lines transport the stage to a world of beauty and pain. Jaiden Castleton and Jarom Brown give admirably passionate performances, respectively, as her duty-ravaged son Hyllos and broken-hero husband Herakles.
Also notable in this small cast are Merry Magee and Kaltin Kirby as servants. Using full-body story-telling to erase the distance created by their traditional masks, these two make the most of their comic supporting roles using physical gestures reminiscent of the commedia dell’arte tradition with charming effect. The use of traditional masks on the actors may be initially off-putting to some audience members, but I found them powerful reminders of the deeply human inability to communicate outside of one’s self, and the actors have no trouble projecting vocally or emotionally through them. The director chose precise moments for actors to remove their masks and soliloquize their innermost thoughts, but when addressing other characters, the masks are on, as an intentional and unavoidable boundary of understanding. Not every choice of putting on and taking off masks fits with this interpretation, but overall the masks are used with intentionality and purpose, while still being open to individual interpretation.
Andrea Benson Davenport’s unimposing costumes are especially effective in the matching black dresses of the chorus. The flow and fall of the fabric around their bodies heightens the fluidity of their ever-shifting roles. Davenport, who is also the Music Director, provided music that underscores much of the piece, and her compositions create powerful contrasts between lovely melody and tragic melancholy; the poetic lyrics sung by the chorus drive home the beauty of the text. I also compliment C. K. Williams and Gregory W. Dickerson for their evocative translation. It rings with poetry, not too complex to be taken in, but powerful enough to give pause. The play is an exploration of the dangers of fixed ideas of masculine and feminine roles, where a woman’s beauty can be more curse than blessing, and a man’s only strength is precariously based on his physical power. In its final scene the play raises complex questions of family duty and personal moral agency. The son, Hyllos is placed in an impossible position between obeying his father’s wishes and the commands of the gods. Questions of this kind continue to dominate our lives, millennia after Sophocles’s script was written.
This 90-minute, no intermission, Women of Trachis will be seen around northern Utah for the next month. If you have the chance to hear the legendary University of Utah emeritus professor Jim Svendsen’s detailed dramaturgical introduction to the plot and the genre before the performance as I did, all the better. You’ll watch with a little more understanding of what to look for, and what it tells us about the legacy of classical Greek performance. So arrive a little early if you can. This Utah tradition, now in its 48th year, will remind you of the beauty and power of the ancients, and what we can still learn from where Western theatre began.