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Myth and Reality

The Alley's Greeks is grander in notion than in execution

The Greeks' greatest warrior, Achilles figures prominently not only in the Iliad but in Virgil's Aeneid as well. The Alley, however, offers a rather bizarre reading of the hero. Costumed in samurai warrior garb, Michael Bubrick is a buffoonish version of Achilles. Alternately strutting and sulking, he manages to make Agamemnon look reasonable -- which is more than a slight twisting of the original narrative. Alley audiences will recognize the scene settings, indeed the very quality of empty lust played out in this section of the epic, as lifted from Boyd's other extravaganza this season -- the disastrous In the Jungle of Cities. Vacuous-looking women are shuttled about like dolls, and Agamemnon's argument with Achilles over a concubine is reduced to the level of a dispute among boys in a sandbox.

Then again, such characterization is trademark Boyd. As critic Andy Lavender has put it, "We are now supposed to be enjoying the age of designer theater under the rule of the director." Forget Homer and Virgil; forget Barton and Cavander; this Achilles has little to do with the authors and everything to do with director Boyd and a fantasy of the power of interpretation. If you want thrusting penises decorated with codpieces, you've come to the right place. If you want bare asses separated by thongs, you'll be satiated. If you want art, however, stay at home and read the originals.

The last play before the intermission break is Euripides's The Trojan Women -- and this first look at the Trojan side of the war is a painful one. Women are strewn about the stage, their clothes ragged, their faces drawn. Hecuba, former queen of Troy, has been claimed as a slave, as has her daughter-in-law Andromache. In this play, the musical component of The Greeks becomes a good deal more literal; one song describes Troy's fall and a number of choral pieces underline the war's despair. The songs are somewhat less deadly than the hokey choral repetition, but they still far short of their purpose, which is to further dramatize the plight of the unfortunate.

Shelley Williams's Andromache appears on a rolling platform, the remnants of her household bundled around her, and her child Astyanax by her side. Wrapped in a black mourning gown, Williams is a lamentable figure, and her railing at the Greeks offers, finally, the kind of hurling rage an audience expects from such a character. Euripides wrote women who are often the victims of endless suffering and cruelty, and who reveal their strength in the face of the worst treachery. When her child is plucked from her embrace to be tossed off Troy's walls, Williams is first vengeful, and then stoic.

The Trojan Women also introduces Cassandra, the prophet whose visions aren't believed. If there is one reason to suffer through the crowded mess of The Greeks, it would be to see Corliss Preston's Cassandra. Preston has the rare ability to inhabit the spirit of a role. Wild-eyed and fierce, she is carted off at the end of The Trojan Women to become Agamemnon's concubine. Each time she speaks, the dialogue seems somehow less bland, the production inspired and the story alive.

The least realized major character in The Trojan Women is Hecuba, whose story continues after the intermission. Played by Jacqueline Knapp, Hecuba is largely ineffectual -- so much so that Agamemnon's ironic, "O, Hecuba, you suffer so much," is a welcome dig, and earned laughter from the opening night audience. Knapp's weak interpretation is evident in Hecuba, the evening's fourth play, as well. Where she should be gloriously vindictive, she is instead small and mean.

In Hecuba, the production's acting flaws continue. Instead of even subtly altering their personas from the roles they perform in the other plays, both John Feltch and Jeffrey Bean offer identical soulless versions of their characters. As Polymestor, the treacherous host of Hecuba's last living son, Bean sleepwalks through his richest scene. Feltch is perplexingly the same placidly amused figure in each of his characters -- utterly unchanged from play to play. Despite their occasionally less textured roles, the women own the Alley's production of The Greeks. As the evening's second sacrificial virgin, Jodi Melnick's Polyxena is luminous. Her story is one that resonates with the Trojan women's condition -- left utterly behind, they find death is much nobler option than becoming a slave to a barbaric Greek.

Despite the disappointments, The Greeks is often beautiful, and nowhere more so than in Agamemnon's return. Astride his ship and all the spoils of the war, Black is sailed onto center stage. At the bottom of his heap is Cassandra's mummified form, left wrapped until the warrior gets his proper greeting. The icon that hung upstage during Iphigenia has disappeared, and a larger version appears on the floor downstage, as Clytemnestra's palace altar.

Unfortunately, what begins beautifully ends in parody. As Cassandra predicts, the blood flow from the house of Atreus isn't over. After murdering her husband to avenge her daughter's death, Clytemnestra appears in the palace doorway, soaked with blood. Dragging an ax behind her, she stands beside the corpses of her husband and his concubine and licks a trail of blood running down her cheek. There's a ridiculous horror film theme here -- the ax Heflin drags across the platform sounds like the flimsy prop it is, and her wry announcement of her deed is a throwaway line rather than the fulfillment of her revenge. Robbed of its meaning, the murder is another example of empty lust -- this time for blood. Utterly absent is the sensibility that Iphigenia's death is avenged.

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