The set-up: Young playwright Katharine Sherman has a nimble touch with ancient tales and fables. A recent MFA graduate from the Playwright's Workshop at the University of Iowa, she deconstructs myths with well-placed charges of modern theatrical dynamite. Like the Night (2009) reconfigures moon goddess Selene as contemporary prom queen; Christopher Marlowe's Chloroform Dreams (2011) weaves together Elizabethan Marlowe with 1940s noir anti-hero detective Marlowe; the story of mermaid Ondine (2012) is a quartet between fish and magician, and two modern lovers whose sleep deprivation drives both tales.
Cassandra (2010) keeps the unfortunate Trojan prophetess within the walls of her ancient hometown, but brings her smack up to date with searing apocalyptic visions of mushroom clouds and falling twin towers. Sherman makes Cassandra photophobic, a neat touch, and plays variations upon her constant picture taking, as if all the pix hanging on the clothesline are her midnight visions. Anachronisms - like Cassandra's a capella rendition of "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and multiple references to Cinderella - keep the ancient very much in the present. In her lace mini dress and grunge boots, she's a pop diva without an audience.
The execution: A bit of prehistoric backstory is in order. A precocious and pretty teenager, Cassandra, daughter of the king of Troy, caught the eye of Apollo, god of art and light. He promised her the gift of prophecy if she'd sleep with him. She said yes, and he bestowed the gift. When he tried to collect on the sex, she furiously rebuffed him. You don't play games with Greek gods. Apollo cursed her: she retained her all-seeing knowledge, but no one would ever believe anything she foretold. Everyone thought her mad - or worse, petulant and attention-seeking. It was a terrible curse for a young girl: to tell the truth yet be mocked, locked up, and paid no attention to. It could drive a kid crazy.
Sherman catches just the right tone for Cassandra, hip and showboaty, naïve yet all-knowing. It's a delicate balance, caught between adolescence and adulthood, but Shelby Bray carries it off with a shaded, shimmery performance. At times she rants in an expressionistic rush of words, at times she cowers by the side of her bed, chain-smoking cigarettes and scouring through piles of newspapers (she knows everything, you know), all while bedeviled or becalmed by a Chorus trio (Arianna Bermudez, Kaylin Zeren, Curtis Barber), who hark back to her happier childhood.
She's calmest with brother Hector (Adam Zarowski), Troy's great warrior prince, but he's as lost as she is, following a soldier's life just because "I'm good at it." Cassandra, of course, knows exactly what's going to befall him, but is so shaken by the knowledge that she can't continue her warning. In a thrilling scene, related in voice-over as everyone stands looking away from us, Hector tells her his dream where he leaves a blood-red stain through the mud and grass. He's perplexed as to its meaning, but she knows that's how he's going to die.
Mom and Dad, or Hecuba and Priam (Kay McStay and Ryan Kelly), don't know what to make of their young daughter who interrupts dinner parties with tantrums and creepy visions. They're clueless, like parents out of a '50s sitcom, and lock her in her room and get her a shrink (Cris Skelton). In a clever reveal near play's end, the doctor turns out to be Apollo, and thereby we learn of his fateful curse.
In a nice piece of irony from Sherman, Cassandra's closest pal turns out to be Helen (Lisa Villegas), wife of Spartan king Menelaus, who's been wooed and won by Paris, Cassandra's brother. Willingly abducted and brought to Troy, her adultery begins the Trojan War. Beauteous Helen has been tricked by the gods, too, and she's portrayed as pretty, but dumb and eager to please, considering she can't do anything else. The two outsiders form a bond, of sorts, as Helen teaches Cassandra how to wear high heels and does up her hair. They're gal pals, but Cassandra can't get those ghastly visions of death and destruction out of her head. How can she make friends when she knows the end of the world is nigh? For her, happiness is fleeting at best.
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Co-presented by Mildred's Umbrella and Wordsmyth Theater, Cassandra is played outdoors. This al fresco treatment sharpens the play's obvious edges - as long as it doesn't rain. In the courtyard of Westbury Square, which resembles some forlorn movie studio backlot, the world of poor Cassandra is cleverly conjured with only a sheet, a ladder, a fireplace mantle, a table and chairs, and a makeshift bed surrounded by bundles of newspapers. A slide projector makes an appropriate appearance with hellfire visions, and when the other actors aren't in a scene they skulk around the perimeter watching the action like extras in an Antonioni movie.
Sherman's scenes are short and impressionistic, some working better than others, but director Melissa Flower keeps the tension in high gear and the poetry down to earth. The slo-mo sequences could be dropped without losing any momentum - didn't that theatrical device go out in the '80s?
The verdict: "I've been locked in a camera obscura," Cassandra explains to us. Her world is dark and upside down. Everything she loves will be hideously destroyed, but she can do nothing about it. The clarity of her visions burn. Her "crash moment" is constant. Ultimately, the play stalls because it has no where to go. Since Cassandra is powerless to control her own destiny, she can't control the play either. Don't blame Sherman, blame the Greeks. But the imaginative production lets her go mad outdoors, under the stars. That's very old style theater - and it works like gangbusters.
Cassandra runs through May 24 at the courtyard at Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square. Purchase tickets online at www.mildredsumbrella.com or call 832-463-0409. All performances, pay-what-you-can.