Some will see it as an act of bravado, others will consider it foolhardy, but Natural Theatricals, the new professional theater company in residence at Alexandria's George Washington Masonic National Memorial, is presenting an obscure and ancient Greek play for its debut. Although the drama is generally well presented, it remains an unwieldy play destined to appeal primarily to a small band of devotees of this art form.
That may not be a sure-fire way to sell tickets, particularly when a group is new, but it is true to its mission, which is to present plays derived from the ancient Greek theatrical tradition. The group's next production is another act of courage, an original play inspired by Sophocles's "Antigone."
Few people have ever seen Sophocles's "The Women of Trachis" (also called "Trachiniai") in performance. The weakest of the great master's few surviving plays, it is rarely staged, most likely because it might be difficult to find a consistent dramatic template. The play is oddly divided between the two main characters, Herakles, who is better known to us as strongman Hercules, and his tormented wife, Deianeira.
Deianeira, vividly portrayed here by Paula Alprin, dominates the first act as she waits for the return of her long-absent husband, wallowing in jealousy when she learns he has sent a mistress home ahead of him. The play seems a portrait of her obsession and insecurity. But before we meet Herakles, perhaps the greatest of the Greek heroes and problematically played here by Dwayne Starlin, in the second act, Deianeira is dead. Determined to entice her husband, Deianeira had sent him a robe coated with what she thought was a love charm but was really a poison. When she discovers she has delivered Herakles to a grim destiny, Deianeira kills herself.
The play then makes a seismic readjustment and becomes a study of a demigod who may or may not be brought down to mortality, which either Sophocles or his translators have left unclear. While Herakles's body dies, the fate of his spirit remains vague. Husband and wife never interact on the stage, undermining the themes and contributing to the sense that this tale is supremely disjointed.
Director Brian Alprin has chosen a naturalistic presentation, leaving the grand, ornate amphitheatre of the Masonic facility completely unadorned with sets or significant props; the lighting is rudimentary. With one significant and unfortunate exception, the actors, performing almost entirely on the floor in front of the raised stage, deal with Sophocles's histrionic dialogue with unaffected intonation and only slightly elevated physical expression. That matches the translation by Carl R. Mueller and Anna Krajewska-Wieczorek, who dealt with the bulky, exposition-burdened speeches by stripping much of the elegance from the language.
It's doubtful the original Greek has such graceless passages as, "She intended good, but it all went wrong," as son Hyllos (Daniel J. Oates) tries to explain the actions of his mother to his doomed father.
Alprin has eliminated the female chorus that gives the play its name, melting the dozen narrators/commentators into one performer, sultry Aimee Meher-Homji. Perhaps trying to replace the lost energy, Alprin has her frequently engage in hyperactive, mechanical movement. Meher-Homji mostly overcomes the distraction of the repetitious motion, however, with a quiet emotional bearing.
Much less successful is Starlin's Herakles, portrayed less as a mighty hero and more as a modern televangelist. With eyes frequently closed, perhaps intended as an expression of physical pain but which appears more as self-absorption, and with his voice rising and falling in grandiose waves of bombastic declamation, Starlin's performance is misguided ham acting.
But even with the flaws, this is an interesting debut for the troupe joining the active local theater scene.
"The Women of Trachis," performed by Natural Theatricals, runs through July 11 at George Washington Masonic National Memorial, 101 Callahan Dr., Alexandria. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, except for July 4, when it will be 8 p.m. There will also be a 2 p.m. show July 5. For tickets or information, call 703-739-9338 or visit www.naturaltheatricals.com.