The regal and imposing Qamara Black, Houston Theater Award-winning Best Actress 2014 for her searing portrayal of opportunistic, fearless Mama Nadi in Lynn Nottage's Ruined, registers majesty even when bowed and broken – maybe even more so.
As the imperious queen of Troy in Euripides's famed ancient tragedy The Trojan Women, brought low with the utter destruction of her empire, this grandmother is to be pawned off as a slave to the victorious Greek general Odysseus – soon to have his own epic, The Odyssey, that details the ten-years-long punishment meted out by the gods for his hubris.
Arthritic and pained with old age, she commands respect as her world collapses about her. Her husband, her many sons and all the men of Troy have been slaughtered; her youngest daughter, Polyxena, has been sacrificed at the altar of warrior-god Achilles; her seeress daughter Cassandra raped and given to Menelaus as concubine; her grandson Astyanax, feared by the conquerors for his parentage, is condemned to be thrown from the burning towers of Troy. All hope is gone, but Black's eyes flash lightning and royal pride; she spits fury and grief to the old gods who have abandoned her; she scorns Helen, her impetuous young son Paris's lover, whose abduction from the court of Sparta's Menelaus started the Trojan War. The gods are silent and unforgiving. What more is there to do but grieve and go on? “An old gray woman...only an image of who once was alive,” she proclaims to the scant survivors.
In Tom Stell's staging, Euripides's antiwar message is given a contempo tinge by having the distaff chorus and female court of Troy portrayed as black, the conquering Greeks, white. The numerous references to slavery ring like a clarion, reverberating through the eons. Although Euripides's imagery and startling poetry hardly need directorial flourish, the modern overlay seems particularly apt and at least isn't pummeled in overuse.
The brutal Greek soldiers wear camouflage with T-shirts splattered with blood. Menelaus's right arm is stained red with gore, as if he had been wading through it. War is hell, and the losers pay through horrid vengeance reaped upon them without mercy. The women of Troy suffer, then suffer more. The mother of their country suffers most.
Leonine and protective of her remaining cubs, Black is a pillar of rectitude and sorrow, a maternal bedrock. With undeniable stage presence – you never take your eyes off her – she rules with elemental, natural grace. She's such a force, everyone else pales. Alicia Stevens, as mad Cassandra, nearly rises to Black's lofty position, but her fluttery delivery is more Ophelia than princess. We never quite believe her, which is ironic since the gods have doomed her prophecies to never be believed. As the Chorus, Bibiana Ohio is stately; Grace Ojionuka has feral presence; Andrea Sorrel and Erica Young Joseph handle their African folk-inspired musical numbers with flair and assurance. Seared from the horrors of war, Lauren Hainley, as snarky herald Talthybius, undergoes a neat transition from P.R. flack to sympathetic apologist when she carries in the dead body of Hector's young son. Even the victors in war are irreparably changed. Although he appears only briefly in Act II, Stell mirrors Black in presence and ease of command. His voice is rich and full, and he exudes control and a stolid masculinity as ultimate conqueror.
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As Helen, immortalized two millennia after Euripides by Marlowe as “the face that launch'd a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium,” Amanda Parker plays this iconic image of beauty and seduction as if a Kardashian. In form-fitting cocktail attire, she flaunts her ample charms and flashes shapely gams to re-lure husband Menelaus (Stell, exuding the stoicism of a Navy Seal), who stands impassive at her slatternly onslaught. Hecuba's in shock at her obvious tactics, and commands her to proceed if only to see her fail. She blames the gods for her shocking lack of propriety, and besotted Paris, now dead, for her abduction. Like Hecuba, we don't believe any of her feeble excuses. Menelaus isn't swayed either and orders his wanton wife to his ship bound for Sparta and her place of execution. (Of course, we know from other myths and tales that he will ultimately forgive her transgressions, and Helen will go down in history as the epitome of beauty and eternal female seductiveness.)
The production design is timeless classical: faux marble walls and floor, a plinth, and a blood-drenched throne upon a dais. The lighting, rudimentary. The uncredited colorful costumes bespeak timeless cut: a draped sheath in royal purple for Hecuba; virginal white for Cassandra; basic hues of yellow, brown and blue for the Chorus; guerrilla warfare gear for the Greeks. Garrick Gonzales's sound design is subtle but fierce, with sounds of gunfire and explosions always present in the background. The Chorus chants or sings its dirges with gospel intensity, pounding on the set or clapping for added percussion.
Always a prickly presence for the Athenian audience, Euripides wrote The Trojan Women as a reaction to Athens's 415 B.C. massacre of the neutral island nation of Melos during the prolonged Peloponnesian War, the Greek city-states's own version of the Trojan War. As an indictment of useless brutality and slaughter, the play won second prize at the acclaimed Dionysian Festival, the ancient Greek equivalent of Broadway's Tonys. The winner was playwright Xenocles, whose works are entirely forgotten and lost, but whose dubious fame remains under Aristophanes's withering rebuke, “he's ugly and makes ugly drama.” Who needs war to be memorialized?
The Trojan Women continues through March 5 at Obsidian Theater, 3522 White Oak. For more information, call 832-889-7837 or visit obsidiantheater.org. $20 to $30.