As anyone who's survived a bad production of "Oedipus" can attest -- and if you go to the theater long enough, this will very likely include you -- even the best, most engaging of the ancient Greek plays require extraordinary training and discipline in the staging. The works, like the gods whose beguiling ways infuse them, are merciless in taking the full measure of anyone who dares approach.
If they lack the chops -- or some transcendent genius or inspiration -- actors and directors are well advised to stay away. Natural Theatricals, a new small company, demonstrates much heart and earnestness in its maiden production, a staging of Sophocles' rarely seen tragedy "The Women of Trachis." Unfortunately, the young troupe reveals it's not up to the daunting task.
Structurally, "The Women of Trachis" bears almost no resemblance to the six other extant plays of Sophocles. Deianeira anxiously waits for her husband, Herakles (or, as the Romans called him, Hercules), to return from what she hopes, based on vague prophecies the two received long ago, will be his last labors. Word finally comes that he has sacked the city of an enemy and is on his way home. An advance guard arrives -- with Herakles' concubine in tow, plunging the faithful Deianeira into despair.
But after about two-thirds of the play elapses, Deianeira dies. Herakles then makes his first appearance and dominates the final third until his death, which results from a horrible accident Deianeira set in motion earlier.
With "The Women of Trachis," Sophocles developed a truly unconventional structure: Though no single character anchors the story, the action does move consistently through a series of factual revelations that ultimately disclose the true meaning of the prophecies, which Herakles has fatally misinterpreted because of -- what else? -- hubris.
All the while the women of Trachis, in the form of a chorus, cling to a belief that the prophecies must be good ones, that almighty Zeus would never let his children suffer so terribly. Call it the crowning irony in a tragedy in which the number of ironies is higher than the body count.
But instead of pacing each revelation as another layer of ambiguity being peeled away in a plot-driven narrative, director Brian Alprin focuses too much on Deianeira's suffering. Just when you're wondering how much more she can stand, she's gone -- along with any dramatic momentum. Though her shadow hangs heavy over the last third of the play, Alprin creates no sense that Deianeira's ultimate comprehension of the prophecies has much to do with the rest of the play. (Let's just say that without said sense, the final third doesn't rise above purple melodrama.)
The production is in High Classical mode (lots of declaiming, period dress), but not everyone in the 14-member cast is up to the demands of the style. The chorus, reduced to a single character played ably enough by Aimee Meher-Homji, is a sprightly imp hoping against hope. As Deianeira, Paula Alprin convincingly struts and frets like a forlorn sentinel but doesn't give you much else. As Herakles, Dwayne Starlin seethes and rages but offers no glimpse into the great hero he once was or the incredible heights from which he has so ignobly fallen.
Companies should always try to stretch themselves but never out of all shape and proportion.
The Women of Trachis, by Sophocles. Directed by Brian Alprin. Lighting by Jeff McWhirt; sound, Stephen Selman; costumes, Lauren Julien; set, Jeffrey Neal Stevenson. With Jean Hudson Miller, Daniel J. Oates, John Feist, Manolo Santalla, Heather Haney, Eileen A. Farrell, Genevieve James, Lauren Julien, Steven Paige Blaine, James Senavitis and Jonathan Marget. Approximately 1 hour 45 minutes. Through July 11 at Natural Theatricals, in residence at George Washington Masonic National Monument, 101 Callahan Dr., Alexandria. Call 703-739-9338 or visit www.naturaltheatricals.com/tickets.html.