The Euripides' tragedy Hecuba , set during the immediate aftermath of the Trojan War and now being performed by the usually dependable Pearl Theatre Company, contains some strong performances, a powerful message about reaping what one has sewn and a description of a punishment that is deliberately painful to hear. However, the production suffers several major missteps which blunt the overall effectiveness of the work.
After a decade, the war between Greece and Troy is finally over. The victorious Greeks are preparing to sail home, leaving the once-proud Trojans as slaves in their ruined city. Among the latter group is Hecuba (Joanne Camp), Queen of Troy, who lost several of her family members during the war and who must now watch helplessly as her daughter Polyxena (Carolyn Ratteray) is to be sacrificed in order to appease the gods. But when the body of her youngest son Polydorus is discovered, (also Ratteray—several of the cast members play multiple roles), killed by Polymestor (Dominic Cuskern), the ruler of neighboring Thrace and the man who was supposed to be the boy's protector, Hecuba vows revenge.
Unfortunately, the early scenes tell what is happening rather than show it, with the performers often delivering the words with all the energy of a first read through of the script. Everything is played on a flat, almost emotionless level; from Polydorus' ghost warning what is to come, to Hecuba's protestations about the way her life has turned out, Odysseus' (John Livingston Rolle) declarations that Polyxena is to be sacrificed, Polyxena's decision to go to her death willingly and the description of how she died. It also doesn't help that Camp's portrayal of Hecuba evokes no sympathy at all. When she pleads to Odysseus for her child's life or screams in mortal anguish, it seems more like overacting than a mother's pain.
The production's Greek Chorus (Rachel Botchan, Vinie Burrows and Carol Schultz) fares little better. Relating their tale in song, their voices are seriously out of synch with one other, making their efforts more annoying than anything else.
These problems make it all the more surprising when the show suddenly kicks into high gear, beginning when Hecuba vows revenge for the death of her son. Camp's performance ceases to be grating and becomes vengeful and bloodthirsty, while the various women of Troy come together with a determined purpose, proving once again that the female of the species can be deadlier than the male.
Helping tremendously with the production's resurgence is Cuskern in the role of Polymestor. Arriving at the summoning of Hecuba, he thinks he has the upper hand while Hecuba knows her vengeance is soon to come; and so their conversation crackles with tension. Also, while Rolle's Odysseus speaks in a dull monotone, he imbues the part of Agamemnon with the air of a political schemer; giving Hecuba his tacit approval of her plan. Later he turns a blind eye to what has happened, so long as it serves the Greeks' purpose—a tactic which, according to the Director's Notes, can also apply to the actions of the United States today in its various overseas engagements.
Unfortunately, the play doesn't pick up steam until the final third of the evening, leaving the audience to suffer through what has come before. Since most of the acting eventually works quite well, the majority of problems must be laid at the feet of director Shepard Sobel, who doesn't seem to have a firm grasp of the text.
Tech credits are adequate, with the only standout being the subtle lighting design by Stephen Petrilli. "Hecuba" is a powerful piece, and one that is still quite timely in many aspects; but this presentation misses the mark far more often than it hits it.
Also in the cast are Rocelyn Halili, Kelli Holsopple, Susan Hunt, Mel England and Bashir Solebo.
Pearl Theatre Company
80 St. Marks Place (between 1st and 2nd Avenues)
Tickets: $20.00 – $50.00
Reservations: (212) 598-9802 or www.theatremania.com
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour, 35 minutes
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication THE STAGE.