REVIEW: EURIPIDES' ANDROMACHE

Pretty often, actually, somebody or other tells me I should Be A Reviewer! So y'all know how I am ... I aim to please, me.  Anyhoo, I was out getting some culture recently and saw this show the other week.  I had a few thoughts:

 

Always a Bridesmaid:
Euripides’ Women Take Center Stage

Andromache
American Thymele Theatre at The Glicker-Milstein Theatre
New York City
August 2, 2014

NEW YORK –The audience entered the Glicker-Milstein theater to the strains of music, evocative of ancient Greece but newly composed for the occasion, and waited for the action to begin in the company of the supremely still Goddess Thetis holding court on a sparsely set stage.  Meanwhile, program notes revealed that the American Thymele Theatre’s production of EuripidesAndromache was an ambitious choice, given the Greek Drama’s reputation as the Also-est Also-Ran in the canon.

Starring Leanne Gonzalez-Singer (Andromache), Allison Anderegg (Hermione) and Mike Newman (Menelaus), the performance featured a number of interesting cameo artists, who gave well-constructed (and typically Euripidean) speeches which, in their turn, excoriated prideful women, gossiping women, lecherous women, excessively garrulous women, disloyal women... basically all kinds of women.

The Feminine was illuminated not just by the example of Andromache and Hermione, but also by a Greek Chorus comprised of women of Phthia.  The Chorus were a welcome peanut-gallery; Sarah Hysjulien, Elizabeth Claflin, Carla Duval, Kayla Weinerman, Essica Dickson and Paula Fredin made the most of their heckling, snarking and unsolicited commentary, their brilliantly careless venom and gleefully unkind bon mots aaaaalmost stealing the show. Somewhat heroically, they made sense of many, if not all, of multitudinous unnecessary and arbitrary crosses of the stage, but they should have lolled more and wandered less – the totality of their work was undercut by unconsidered movement.  The crosses, I speculate, were a directorial choice designed to alleviate what the staff worried would be (but wasn’t) a monotonous landscape of back-to-back speeches. Stage director Stephen Diacrussi and choreographer Sarah Hysjulien should have trusted the frenemies more, says me. The more frankly choreographed passages in the latter scenes worked just fine; perhaps arbitrary is more successful when accomplished via lightly rhythmic unison.

In terms of excoriation, the men got off light, except for men desirous of possessing more than one woman at a time – they got an earful from our playwright, who also missed no opportunity to point out the morally bankrupt, intellectually inferior and just generally odious characters found among the people of Sparta.  I mean, ugh, Spartans, amirite?  Euripides’ Andromache had its first performance on or about 428 B.C., and imagines Andromache’s life as a slave in post-Trojan War Sparta.  Sexually victimized and in great peril, she is degraded and insulted by the wife of her rapist and, at that wife’s behest, threatened with murder by the tyrannical King of Sparta.

Baffling, to me, at least, is that the piece is criticized for its lack of a strong central character to dominate the action.  One supposes that the term “character” must be code for “male character”, because indeed, with momentary exceptions, the men are reactionary, or provide a catalyst for the speeches of the women. Andromache tells the story of women; here we have a female victim, a female victimizer, a bevy of female analysts providing ‘color commentary’ from an entirely feminine perspective and all eyes, ultimately, are on a female god, the entire cast of characters in her thrall and invested in her verdict.

In the title role, Leanne Gonzalez-Singer ably filled any imagined void left by the lack of a strong central male character by bringing a charismatic presence, emotional commitment and surefooted negotiation of the text to the stage.  She easily sketched a proud and angry (albeit desperately frightened) Andromache.  Her opening speech…

“City of Thebe, Asia's ornament, from you I once came, my dowry rich in gold and luxuries, to Priam's royal hearth, given to Hector as wife, to bear his children. Andromache was someone to envy, then, But now: if any woman is unhappy, I am. I saw my husband Hector killed and the son I bore ... thrown from the steep city walls after the Greeks had taken the land of Troy. From a house most free, I came to Greece a slave, given to Achilles' son, Neoptolemus, to be his spear's reward, a choice selection from the Trojan loot.”

…was delivered in clear tones, with a beautifully produced and nicely pitched contralto voice. The petite actress was a study in disgust and outraged virtue, heated by terror and regret.  Although her fears for herself and her child were palpable, she never permitted them to mar her precise delivery of Euripides’ lovely old words: 

“...my master married Hermione the Spartan... I am driven by her evil cruelties. She says that by the use of secret drugs I make her childless, hateful to her husband; that I wish to occupy this house myself in her place, forcing her out of the marriage bed, a thing I first accepted against my will...Great Zeus should know it was against my will I shared that bed. But I can't persuade her, and she wants to kill me, and Menelaus helps his daughter in this.”

As a counterpoint, her nemesis, Hermione, entered:

“The luxurious gold diadem I wear, the many-colored fabric of my robe: I didn't bring them here as offerings from the house of Achilles or of Peleus. No: they are from Sparta, the Laconian land. Menelaus my father gave these gifts to me with an ample dowry, so I am free to speak.”

Money talks indeed and Anderegg, as handily as Gonzalez-Singer, used her speaking voice to draw Hermione's portrait. A spiteful, vapid and childish woman (reasonably) consumed with rage at her husband’s betrayal and (unreasonably) determined to make Andromache the author of that betrayal, Anderegg pitched her voice more than half an octave atop Gonzalez-Singer’s, and mixed a pathological level of vengefulness with a rising hysteria in her very effective shrilling.

“You are a slave, a woman won by the spear, who wants to keep this home and throw me out. Your drugs have made me hateful to my husband, and because of you my ruined womb is barren. The minds of Asian women are terribly clever at things like this. ....let go your former prosperous pride to cower in humility, fall at my knee...Learn what land you're in. Hector's not here, nor Priam with his gold: this city is Greek.”

Suggesting brittleness with her tensed, willowy frame, Anderegg grew increasingly (and convincingly) unhinged:

“Are you so ignorant, you wretched creature, that you can bear to go to bed with a man whose father killed your husband, and to have the killer's children? Barbarians are all like that: father has sex with daughter, son with mother, girl with brother, the nearest relatives murder each other, and no law holds them back.”

As Menelaus, Mike Newman was a wonderful villain.  Appropriately vile, when standing still he struck poses and cut a handsome figure, but in motion his gait alternated between a scuttle and a peacock strut. He managed to simultaneously appear both violent and craven as he threatened and postured, forcing Andromache to choose death for either herself or her child.  In the end, he is vanquished and taunted by Peleus:

“...get away from this place at once along with your childless daughter...Barren heifer that she is, she can't tolerate others giving birth, while she has no young herself. Just because your daughter is unlucky with children, does she have to deprive us of our own offspring too?”

Menelaus replies to this insult by beating a retreat he vainly attempts to characterize as strategic, blathering:  

“You are too prone to abuse. But since I came to Phthia because I had to, I will neither commit nor suffer any shabby treatment. And now—since I don't have plenty of time to spare—There is a city, not far from Sparta, which used to be our friend and now is hostile. I mean to lead my army against it...When I've arranged things there as I judge best, I'll return, and face-to-face my son-in-law and I will have a candid exchange of words...As for your talk, it doesn't bother me. You stand here like a shadow with a voice, incapable of anything save speech.”

Yes, yes, Menelaus -- you go conquer that city and then come back and give us nine kinds of hell, riiight. Newman pulled the character back from the keen edge of unintended comedy, but his disgraced exit did seem to call for at least golf-clap level of applause.

Standing out among the smaller roles was John Calvanico as Peleus, who spoke his lines in the most natural of voices.  Sporting a warm, biggish and husky baritone, he is obviously a lifelong resident of our fair city -- possibly Brooklyn? Staten Island? Calvanico’s work made me think of a film called “Looking for Richard”, which featured Al Pacino giving an unaccented version of the “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech -- at least unaccented from Mr. Pacino’s perspective.  In that film, Pacino gives Richard III his own mother tongue, native New Yorker that he is, proving once and for all that one isn’t, actually, required to don a British accent to declaim classical theater.  Similarly, it was a pleasant experience to hear the ancient text of Euripides made so thoroughly Mr. Calvanico’s own, and treated so personally.

At the last, the audience received the verdict they’d been waiting for. After sitting ab.so.lute.ly. motionless (which had to be exhausting) for the entire duration of the piece, Jessica Bonder rose, all elegance. She declared, in a remarkably relaxed and musical voice, the Goddess Thetis' verdict:

“Peleus, because I once was married to you, I, Thetis, have come here... And first I advise you not to take too hard your present evil fortunes. Even I who never should have shed tears for my children— since I am a goddess and my father is a god— I lost the swift-footed son I had from you,  Achilles, born to be the first in Greece. I will tell you why I came; listen to my words. ... Andromache must join with Helenus in marriage and settle in Molossia, old man, along with this child, the only one remaining of Aeacus' line. His descendants will pass their lives as kings of Molossia, in prosperity. Your race and mine, old man, is not to be so utterly uprooted, nor is that of Troy. The gods do care for her although she fell by Athena's eager wish. As for you...I'll free you from the troubles mortals are heir to, and make you immortal, a god who never fades. Then, for the future, you will live with me in Nereus' home, a god beside a goddess. And with dry foot you will travel out of the sea to see your dearest child, and mine, Achilles: he lives in his island home, along the shore of Leuke in the inhospitable strait.”

In the end, a good time was had by all.  The relative lack of financial resources, the fairly dire lack of production values, and the moving between three stages (two of which were outdoors) during the run were all challenges the cast met with apparent ease.  The American Thymele Theatre produces Hellenic theater each season -- information about their next outings will be disseminated at their website.

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ATT at the Naumburg Bandshell

About the Company:

The American Thymele Theatre was founded in 1993, initially to promote and disseminate Hellenic culture in America by producing plays with Greek themes. It has since presented a variety of works (including some in their original 19th century Greek). In new York City, ATT has played the Kraine Theater, the Frederick Loewe Theater, the Olympic Theatre, the East River Park Amphitheatre, the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, Theatre Seven Seventy, the Marilyn Monroe Theatre and the New York Public Library, as well as tours of New Jersey and Connecticut and appearances in Boston, Phoenix and Philadelphia. A non-profit organization, ATT dedicated to bringing quality theater, along with rarities never before staged in America, to audiences of all ages. It is chartered by the State of New York and all of its productions are approved by Actors’ Equity Association, the national union of professional actors and stage managers.

This particular production was extended into the following season, with daytime performances for the New York City public schools. ... In 2009, ATT started its New York City Euripides Summer Festival with Euripides’ “Rhesus” at the East River Park Amphitheatre, followed by “Alcestis” in 2010 at the same amphitheater. "Hippolytus", in 2013, marked the company's 20th anniversary, and was intended for outdoor stages, using traditional sets, costumes, masks, and original music to rave reviews, free of charge to the public, just like in antiquity.

 

Kathryn Allyn

Jazz singer, political junkie, cautionary tale and nights'n'weekends Stig, on the Island of Misfit Toys.