Trojan Barbie

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday April 10, 2009

Mars and Venus: Renzo Ampuero plays a Greek soldier and Careena Melia plays Helen of Troy in ’Trojan Barbie,’ running through April 22 at the Zero Arrow Theater
Mars and Venus: Renzo Ampuero plays a Greek soldier and Careena Melia plays Helen of Troy in ’Trojan Barbie,’ running through April 22 at the Zero Arrow Theater  (Source:Michael Lutch / A.R.T.)

Euripides' play "The Trojan Women" is treated to a mash-up of contemporary warfare's discontents in the A.R.T.'s production of Christine Evans' daringly conceived Trojan Barbie, playing through April 22 at the Zero Arrow Theatre in Cambridge.

The set alone asks the audience to ponder some uncomfortable questions. Doll parts, looking all too much like human trunks and limbs, are strung high up across the top of the stage; a cart sporting a ghoulish assortment of doll's heads rests to one side; concrete bunkers and rubble flank the space.

How are we to think about the relationship of war to human flesh? War is all about destroying the integrity of the body, and assaulting the integrity of the mind; its horror and brutality both sates a deep, disturbing inner drive, and serves a rational calculation geared toward defeating an enemy.

And how are we to think about how dolls reflect our attitude toward human flesh? When we imitate flesh with plastic or porcelain, are we celebrating it--or mocking it? Baby dolls and GI Joes serve two very different ends, one maternal and one martial, and Barbie--the iconic doll that recently turned 50--falls somewhere in between, with her famously idealized and unrealistic proportions, an object of fascination, affection, adoration... and objectification.

Indeed, war, too, objectifies people, turning men into liabilities best disposed of and women into commodities to be exploited or bartered. In the case of the ancient Greeks, a girl might be traded in a deal with the gods for a good wind by which to set sail; in modern war--as in ancient conflicts--the sacrifice is to base human malice, as women are raped, either for the "comfort" of stressed-out soldiers, or in a further assault against the ethnic identity of the enemy.

Evans' play takes Euripides' original apart and reassembles it much as Lotte (Karen MacDonald), a Londoner who has set out on a "cultural tour for singles," reassembles and repairs dolls both vintage and modern. For a time, Lotte hovers around the edges of the play, her checklist of travel items being paralleled with the goods that the imprisoned Trojan women no longer enjoy among the ruins of their city.

The captured women are the cream of Trojan society, among them Queen Hecuba (Paula Langton), her daughters Polly X (Kaaron Briscoe) and Cassandra (Nina Cassa), and her daughter-in-law Andromache (Skye Noel). The women serve as their own chorus, their laments as hard-edged and eloquent as slam poetry.

For Helen (Careena Melia), dressed in an an elegant, Greek-style gown, perfectly coiffed and made up, the Trojan woman are making too much of their plight. Even in the ashes, it's possible to look good and to host elegant parties; indeed it's "a form of hospitality," Helen tells Lotte, who ends up kidnapped by a conquering Greek soldier and dragged into the Trojan perimeter.

"No one does suffering better than you," Helen coolly tells a bedraggled Hecuba, who is dressed in the weeds of a widow.

Hecuba snaps right back with, "And no one unleashes it with cleaner hands than yours."

The exchange is an acid indictment of how victor nations write themselves as heroes in the history books; as one soldier puts it, "We barely remember our former enemies." He truly thinks this is a measure of his nation's generosity, and the comic tone of the line is pure satire in its loftiest sense: it's funny because it's all too painfully true.

Though the "Troy" of the play would seem to be in Turkey, it is not meant literally to reflect any one specific nation in today's world; even so, the opening lines make it plain that the ruined country is a volatile place as much because of its ubiquitous supplies of gasoline and oil as because of the political situation, and an image offered up of a rat crouched in "blood or oil--something dark" is overtly provocative.

For that matter, the "Greeks" who stand watch over the women, alternately flirting with and physically dominating them, are not Greek at all; certainly the blond Mica (Renzo Ampuero), who brings Helen Tylenol and other sundries, and the Black Max (Carl Foreman) are American in their postures and their attitudes, with Max telling Polly X stories about Las Vegas--before shooting a starving tiger in the Trojan zoo for mauling the arm of fellow soldier Jorge (Jim Senti), in a clear reference to a similar event in which American troops shot and killed a tiger in the Baghdad zoo.

Though "Trojan Barbie" stops just short of declaring its metaphors to be specific, rather than universal, one salient fact about the Euripides play stands out: the program relates how the play was originally written as a critique of a Greek power play that saw a smaller nation's men slaughtered, and a warning against a Greek plan to undertake an invasion of Sicily. The first military action belied the Greeks' confident belief in themselves as the world's only truly civilized people; the second resulted in Greece's decline and eventual fall, with the Greeks having overextended themselves.

Two Iraqi wars later, Americans might stop and think about the historical precedents. Evans wants us to ask the question no one poses: What happens to women in warfare? She clearly also wants us to think once again about Euripides' original query concerning the place of war and aggression in a society that sees itself as blessed, just, and righteous.

'Trojan Barbie' runs through April 22 at the Zero Arrow Theatre, located at at the corner of Arrow Street and Massachusetts Avenue, near Harvard Square in Cambridge.

Tickets cost $25-$52, with students paying $25; rush tickets cost $15. Senior citizens pay $10 off. Tickets may be obtained online or via phone at 617-547-8300.

Performance dates: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m.; Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; Tuesday April 21 and Wednesday April 22 at 7:30 p.m.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.