Tinkering with a classic is risky business. The attempt to freshen familiar material or add relevance for modern audiences can easily go astray.
Playwright and actor Ellen McLaughlin likes that risk. She has won acclaim updating works from the ancient Greek writers who created the art of drama, such as Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, and providing audiences with new looks that honor and modernize classic plays.
Unfortunately, she falls short attempting to revise "The Trojan Women," Euripides's 415 B.C. tragedy, which is playing at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park.
McLaughlin has abbreviated and streamlined the play, a dramatization of the aftermath of the Trojan War on enslaved female survivors, by focusing on the human reactions of dethroned Queen Hecuba (Tiernan Madorno) and the mythic Helen of Troy (Ameerah J. LeGrande). The apparent aim is to connect this ancient tale to today's headlines as an anti-war statement, but McLaughlin's pared-down version does not connect with current events in any appreciable way. Worse, much of the original rich texture is lost in this ambitious but inward-looking production, directed by Leigh Smiley.
Much is made of how Smiley had her primary cast of 10, plus a chorus of 12, focus on experimental vocal work, including choral sounds and various methods of "breath tempo," accompanied by techniques for producing and releasing various states of emotion. Authentic music from the Balkans, where the refugee remains a familiar modern figure, was researched and integrated. But it's doubtful that audiences appreciate the pedigree of the singing and chanting, especially as they are frequently accompanied by specially constructed instruments based on ancient Greek models.
It is probably all quite rewarding for the ensemble, but the audience does not share the rewards because the emphasis on methodology overshadows basic storytelling. Instead, there's a beautifully realized style that is lovely to see but not emotionally accessible for the audience.
John Fiscella, billed as a movement specialist, contributed dancelike action that evokes an exploding and reconfiguring painting. The actors move in unison, their passage fluidly expressive until freezing in stylized poses, only to erupt again into new tableaus of fear and loneliness. Again, it is striking but diminishes the emotional impact by focusing on the group at the expense of the individual, particularly as one of the playwright's signatures is to have several of the roles played by multiple actors at each performance.
Another act of unfocused self-indulgence is a series of videotaped interviews with real-life women who have left their native countries. As the play begins, the interviews are projected onto the walls of the Kogod Studio Theatre, a black-box space turned into a well-detailed, ramshackle "detention center" by Eric Van Wyk's scenic design.
The videos are intended to tie contemporary events to the ancient experience. Unfortunately, the stories seem mundane and are not edited skillfully enough to relate them to the play's themes or to each other. The sound is quite muddy, making many of the women's words incomprehensible.
Fortunately, the two leading actors rise above the trappings, lucky to have roles not shorn of all distinction by the playwright. Madorno and LeGrande turn in highly charged, intense and natural performances that avoid the restrictive conventions imposed on the rest of the cast. Madorno radiates regal presence even in the reduced state of a refugee, the strength emanating from within, her voice a dynamic, convincing instrument. LeGrande portrays the subtle shades of a woman whose confidence, based in beauty, is eroded by the degradations of war.
By the play's end, the women of Troy are supposed to be frustrated with the gods, but the audience's frustration with the playwright and director is a more obvious outcome.
"The Trojan Women" concludes this weekend at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Route 193 (University Blvd.) and Stadium Drive, at the University of Maryland in College Park. Performances at 7:30 tonight, 8 p.m. Friday, and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. For reservations, call 301-405-2787. For directions or information, go to www.claricesmithcenter.umd.edu.