Fans of the cable show Sons of Anarchy (i.e., The Sopranos on motorcycles) will realize something when examining the set of Trojan Barbie: Tig would not approve.
The fictional Tig suffers from pediophobia, a real psychological condition that erupts in bouts of anxiety when seeing dolls. And the fact that some 12 dolls line the shelves of the shop that bookends Christine Evans' play, as well as the scores of dismembered Barbie parts strewn about the stage during the course of the production, make for a pediophobiac's nightmare. And there's another Tig connection to this play, albeit a bit of a reach. In the first episode of season five of Sons, the actor who plays Tig, Kim Coates, delivered a gut-ripping performance as a father forced to witness one of the most reprehensible atrocities ever aired in a television program.
It's the kind of vile act against life that suffuses so many of the plays written by the ancient Greeks, such as the work that Evans' 2009 play is based on, Euripides' The Trojan Women. In that play, women in the sacked and shackled city of Troy undergo a litany of atrocities, from their grown children sacrificed to the gods to infanticide. The same events happen in Evans' play, although her brutally contemporary staging is anything but just an update. Equally fierce as it is funny, and as steeped in classic theater as it is in what passes for real life today, it's one of those rare plays that captures the spirit of its source material while launching a disturbing volley against the wars, occupations and government-sanctioned terror of the 21st century.
And did I mention it's also about dolls?
Lotte (a perfectly measured Rebecca Cherkoss) is a spinsterish Englishwoman whose avocation and vocation is repairing dolls. Fearful of life passing her by, she decides to embark on a great adventure: booking a singles trip to an exotic location. She bypasses culinary trips to Catalonia and romantic excursions in Rome in favor of visiting the ruins of the ancient city of Troy in present-day Turkey.
What she doesn't realize is there is a very real military occupation happening on that supposedly deserted chunk of land. A military force (the occupiers seem British and American) has moved in, killed most of the men and basically imprisoned the surviving women. And these women, though dressed in contemporary garb and speaking of such things as assemblage art and guns, are suffused with the soul-stirring poetry and sense of monumental sorrow of the ancient Greeks.
There's Hecuba (an astonishing Amy Louise Sebelius), whose piercing emotion as a mother dragged to the edge of madness by horror serves as the play's moral barometer, wildly fluctuating between outrage and heartache. And there are Hecuba's three daughters: Polly X (a sassy and witty Bri Price), an aspiring artist who makes painfully bad sculptures from the broken remnants of Barbie dolls; Andromache (a suitably bewildered Liliana Carrillo), who is in constant torment over the fate of her infant son; and Cassandra (a sweetly deranged Michelle Michau), the quite-insane, sexually charged young woman who delivers one of the finest lines in contemporary theater: “I fucked a horse.”
But even amid the lamentations and outrage, all the performers are so committed and grounded their characters feel real. That is remarkable since the words they are given reverberate with so much poetic Sturm und Drang. Their performances are also a testament to director Olivia Trevino, who realizes that, as huge and overemotive as these characters sometimes are, their experiences are unfortunately familiar to women in any war-torn part of our world.
The dilemma in this play is Lotte's. We're never quite sure why she's there. She is the outsider, catapulted into a world she didn't know existed. But her confusion as to what is happening is unfortunately shared by the audience. Other than serving as an outraged spectator to atrocity, the character doesn't fit with the rest of the play. Usually, a play featuring one character that doesn't seem to belong is a prescription for dramatic disaster. But there's so much going on in Evans' play, so many subtleties in such a Big Play (history repeating itself, wars on women, empathy for other cultures), that Lotte, while distracting, doesn't stall the proceedings.
There are many plays that reach for big things but, suffering from structural defects, crumble. That doesn't happen in Trojan Barbie. Yes, there are problems: Lotte's role, the doll metaphor never clicks into fourth gear, the off-stage tiger. But even with those trouble spots, Evans' ability to capture the real horror of a detention camp, as well as her skill at weaving rich, powerful poetry into such a mesmerizing tale, makes for an astonishing ride.
The best thing that can be said about a playwright you've experienced for the first time is that you can't wait for the next play. Based on Trojan Barbie, Christine Evans should be on the radar of anyone who cares about contemporary American theater.
This review appears in print as “Bellas of Troy: Trojan Barbie at Long Beach's Garage Theater is a bold contemporary take on the Euripides classic.”
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???