War, whether in Iraq or along the shores of ancient Troy, breeds tragedy. That enduring truth is made clear in the poignant production of Euripides' "Hecuba" now playing at 6th @ Penn Theatre.
"Hecuba" is exemplary of these distinctions. The story examines what happens when victims rise up against their aggressors. "Hecuba" poses important questions about the nature of warfare, retribution and justice -- issues that are certainly relevant today.
The play opens with the off-stage voice of Polydorus (Sam Creely), the youngest son of Priam and Hecuba, king and queen of Troy. Polydorus tells the story of his own foul murder. He was shuttled away to safety by the Thracian King Polymestor (Jesse MacKinnon) at the start of the Trojan War. But when the war began to turn in favor of the Greeks, Polymestor betrayed the Trojan king and queen, murdering the boy for the gold he brought with him.
During the lengthy monologue, butoh dancer Charlene Penner emerges from the funereal sheets that adorn Nick Fouch's stark scenic design. Director Esther Emery has made an effective choice in using Penner as the ghostly representation of Polydorus. With her flesh painted white, shifting with painstakingly slow, deliberate movements, Penner exudes both innocence and more than a touch of the eerily supernatural. She skulks about the stage throughout the performance, a constant reminder of the innocent casualties of war.
The Greeks have just sacked Troy. Hecuba has been brought low -- kingdom overthrown, husband and most of her 19 children murdered, and now she waits along with the rest of the women of Troy to be shipped off as Greek slaves. To add to Hecuba's suffering, her daughter Polyxena (Amy Beidel, heartfelt and believably noble) is to be wrenched from her side and sacrificed at the tomb of Achilles.
But there's more tragedy yet for Hecuba. When her youngest son's body washes ashore with the wounds inflicted by his host, Hecuba plots revenge with the help of the other women slaves. She kills Polymestor's two small children and leaves Polymestor alive but blinded, taking an eye for an eye.
Despite stiff presentations from the chorus (Jen Meyer, Erin McKown and Jolene Hui) and uneven performances from the male characters, the real force behind the play is Robin Christ as Hecuba. Christ is a mother's anguish incarnate, delivering a haunting and compelling performance as she moves from grief-stricken whispers to sorrowful wails to the resoluteness of revenge.
UCSD professor Marianne McDonald's translation, under Emery's direction and Fouch's scenic design, has an ageless quality to it. Euripides' lyricism is still there, in an accessible and contemporary format. The play feels both rooted in history and wholly relevant. Just as the play would have resonated with Euripides' audience, enmeshed in the lengthy Peloponnesian War that began in 430 B.C., modern audiences will draw a relationship to the war in Iraq.
We see in Odysseus (David Cohen) and Agamemnon the gilded tongues of politicians, who seem to care more for their own political gain than the fallout of their choices. We see the abuse of power and the sway of the mob. Above all, we see the terrible cost of war, even after it is declared to be over -- the innocent lives taken, the lingering sense of loss.
It is likely that Euripides wrote "Hecuba" as a cautionary tale. Whether we have the hearts to heed the warning this time around remains to be seen, but this production is successful in calling our attention to the ongoing tragedy of war.
PROGRAM: "Hecuba," translated by Marianne McDonald, directed by Esther Emery
Organization: 6th @ Penn Theatre
Dates: Through Dec. 19
Show times: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.
Location: 6th @ Penn Theatre, 3704 6th Ave., Hillcrest
More information: (619) 688-9210, www.sixthatpenn.com