A BRIEF, BAFFLING evening of startlingly alien theater, the Suzuki Company of Toga's adaptation of Euripedes' tragedy "The Trojan Women" is probably unlike anything you've ever seen (or heard). At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, it's an invigorating sink-or-swim immersion in another culture. Drawing on traditional Japanese sources like Noh and Kabuki, this production is more exotic and outlandish than the most avant-garde American productions. But it's not impenetrable. The raw, concentrated emotions are universal -- rage transcends language.
In adaptor/director Tadashi Suzuki's vision of Euripedes' play, the city of Troy is paralleled with the crushed and ruined Japan after World War II. Largely a series of tableaux, the story is told through a devastated old woman who sees the heartbreaking loss of her family in terms of Euripedes' myth. Shadowed by the ghostly pale Buddhist god Jizo, she envisions herself as Hecuba, and later as Cassandra. As in the original play, the war is over at the play's beginning and the women are left to suffer, victims of war begun by men.
It's a natural pairing -- Euripedes' tragedy is very Japanese in nature. And the violence central to the Greek tragedy has its match in the aesthetic cruelty common to much Japanese drama. The brutal killings are precisely choreographed, realistic yet so stylized the beastly becomes beautiful, a means of exorcising the horror. Memories and visions are summoned by the music, a hybrid of traditional Japanese flute and stringed instruments, jarring sound effects reminiscent of war, and mocking electronic pop.
Suzuki has an astonishing actress in Kayoko Shiraishi. In the physically demanding central role, the radiant Shiraishi subtly becomes an aged, tormented woman. Her power is concentrated in her voice -- she seems on the verge of hysteria, her monologues full of grieving, guttural sounds and soul-rending wails.
The chorus skitters in as if on wheels, speaking and moving with impossible precision. And the three evil warriors (are they American? -- one of them sports a Red Cross medic's kit) work their mayhem with gymnastic art.
The highly disciplined troupe has a double barrier to overcome -- not only is the Greek classic performed entirely in Japanese, but it shuttles swiftly between ancient Greek times and post-WWII Japan. It's a difficult piece to grasp, but this strange beauty and artful execution make it worth the stretch.
THE TROJAN WOMEN -- Performed by the Suzuki Company of Toga at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, through June 2.