Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1998
There are two things you need to know at the outset. First, this is Greek tragedy we are discussing here. Hecuba is two hours of angst, grief, death, revenge, self-pity, misery, and helplessness. Second, the title character is referred to by her Greek name Hekabe (heck-ah-bay) and not the Latin Hecuba.
Hekabe is already in the depths of despair when we meet her. Troy has fallen. Her husband, Piram, and many of her 19+ children have been killed. She has been take slave along with the other Trojan women and is being held in a POW camp on a desolate beach in Thrace. As the play begins she is visited in her dreams by the ghost of her youngest son Polydorus, who she doesn’t yet know has been murdered.
Olympia Dukakis plays a Hekabe so weighted down with sorrow that she can barely stand up straight. She has lost all hope, all sense of self and self- worth. The show is performed without an intermission and Dukakis is onstage constantly except for a brief break as the chorus takes us from Act I to Act II. I am sure the role is as physically exhausting for her to play as it is emotionally draining for the audience to watch. I hope that during that brief break from the stage she is immediately given a pitcher of ice water to drink and allowed to go outside and laugh uproariously. I know those are the two things I needed most as I left the theatre.
But hers is a masterful performance. You never feel as if you are watching an actress on stage. You are living the tragedy and the agony with Hekabe through Dukakis. Often it is considered “daring” for a well-known actress to appear in costume and make-up that makes her look old and unattractive. Although Dukakis’ hair is hacked off, her make-up decidedly unflattering, and her age is no secret, her own inner strength and talent make it impossible for her to look unattractive. Standing in her simple shift among the younger women of the chorus there is no doubt that Olympia Dukakis is a beautiful woman and one of the foremost American actresses alive today.
This adaptation of Euripides by renowned playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker focuses squarely on Hebake and the other Trojan women. The men – Odysseus (Marco Barricelli), Talthibios (Apollo Dukakis), Agamemnon (L. Peter Callender), and Polymestor (Steven Anthony Jones) – make brief appearances; and the only one foolish enough to stay amongst the women has to watch his two young sons murdered before he is blinded.
The use of the all-female vocal group KITKA (pronounced Keet-kah) as the chorus is a stroke of genius. These women have been together, performing music inspired by Balkan women’s singing, for twenty years. Kitka means “bouquet” in Bulgarian and Macedonian, and, like a beautiful bouquet of flowers each member retains her own individual beauty and grace while blending seamlessly in to a still more wonderous whole. Their clear voices, blending, separating, and intertwining pull the entire play together as a whole. Their music, at once ancient and modern, allows you to remember that humanity has changed very little over the centuries. Grief is grief. Justice is justice. And family is all.
Dukakis, KITKA, and Michele Shay as the Chorus Leader dominate the stage. They are the women enslaved on this beach, and they cling together as strangers do in times of war and disaster. But the outside world will not leave them alone in their grief and displacement. First it is announced that Hebake’s teenaged daughter Polyxena (Roxanne Raja) must be sacrificed to the ghost of Achilles in order to ensure the Greek army favorable sailing conditions to leave Troy for home. Hekabe argues and pleads and offers herself in her daughter’s stead, but the Greeks demand virgin blood. Polyxena decides to go to the slaughter as the Princess and free woman that she is, rather than to die a slave.
Then the body of Polydorus washes ashore. Hekabe and Piram had sent him to the home of their friend Polymestor, King of Thrace, to ensure his safe keeping until the Trojan war had ended. But Hekabe sees at once that her family has been fouly used by Polymestor. He has hacked her son to pieces and thrown him into the sea in order to acquire the portion of the family fortune with which he as entrusted.
This galvanizes Hekabe into action. It is a relief to see this woman, so completely robbed of her selfhood in the first act, reclaim some sense of mission and dignity. But that mission is the murder of Polymestor’s sons in revenge for her own son’s death.
At the end of the play the blinded Polymestor prophesies that Hekabe will end her days as a bitch (female dog) with flaming eyes. This puzzles and alarms Hekabe, and it did the same for me. I am not governed by the social codes and customs of ancient Greece, and I am as able as the next person to see that Hekabe has committed a heinous crime in her search for justice, but if my daughter had been slain just to ensure strond head-winds for the enemy army and my son had been fouly murdered with his body tossed away like garbage, I too would seek justice in some form. Was a woman and a mother so little in this ancient world that she was expected to quietly accept the murder of her children??
The show looks beautiful. The set and lighting design by Kate Edmonds and Rui Rita respectively capture the wild beauty of the seashore and work well with Carey Perloff’s direction. The sound system by Garth Hemphill and Eileen Tague, often an intrusive technological element in modern theatre, is excellent. Everyone can be heard, no one is over-miked, and the musical elements blend cleanly into the dialogue.
Ah, but the costumes. Specifically the men’s costumes. The women were costumed in flowing garments of textured, natural fibers. While not historically accurate, they certainly acheived the feel of the ancient Aegean area. And then Barricelli walked on stage in pants, a button down shirt, and a pair of laced up, lug soled shoes ($49.99 at K-Mart.) With his fine physique and his shirt carefully unbuttoned to reveal his manly chest, I felt as if a stray Chippendale dancer had taken a wrong turn and stumbled on to the AMT stage. What was David F. Draper thinking?? Pants were only invented about 500 years ago, and technology such as buttons and enclosed shoes were certainly not available in ancient Greece. Why have the sexes dressed as if they came from two different eras? It was an unnecessary distraction.
Hecuba runs on the MainStage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival through August 30. The show runs 110 minutes without an intermission. Call 413-597-3400 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1998