Reviewed by Ryan Max
One by one, four enormous, gorgeous puppets rumble onto the stage. As each emerges at intervals throughout they play, she delivers a monologue detailing cruelties she has suffered, and then gives birth to a life-size puppet (strapped to an actor) that performs scenes from Euripides's The Trojan Women. The four giant puppets each represent a modern-day feminist: three from Africa and one, a young girl named Shamsia, from the Middle East. Shamsia's tale, which appeared in The New York Times earlier this year, is a harrowing one: on her way to school one day, bandits on motorcycles stop her and ask her if she is on her way to school and then spray her in the face with acid. Coming from a 13-foot-tall puppet, the monologue has an arresting and surreal sense of doom.
But her story also illuminates the serious pitfalls of hastily tying an ancient play with ripped-from-the-headlines vignettes. The Traveling Players, in its highly incongruous halves, fails to make a good case for its appropriation of Trojan Women. The monologues from the giant puppets and Euripides' tale are connected only very loosely: they are both about women being treated like dirt. With few other complementary aspects in the two pieces, little is gained from uniting the two in such an intimate theatrical space.
Deficiencies aside, the delights of the play—and there are many—are mostly visual. The lighting, alternating between stark, cold tones and warmer hues, is a gorgeous compliment to Theodora Skipitares’ hypnotic puppets. The life-sized puppets acting out The Trojan Women, affixed to actors wearing dark, full-body suits, are manipulated so gracefully they take on lives of their own. Hecuba, in particular, is entrancing as the fallen queen of Troy. And then there are Ms. Skipitares’ 13-feet-tall puppets, the stunning giants that sermonize about modern horrors faced by women. Their large, unwieldy nature relegates them to the background, but their looming presence is inescapable.
The play also attempts to integrate some more scattershot elements with varied success. The musical score, best described as "electro-tribal," provides a perfect atmosphere. An entertaining mini-play, acted out with small wooden puppets on sticks, tells the tale of a group of African women doing battle with the Chevron oil company. But a carnival barker that introduces each of the giant puppets before they roll out from backstage clashes with the solemn tone of the stories he sets up.
In the end the lack of purpose overwhelms the obvious skill and craftsmanship of the production. The very lyrical, deliberate cadences of the Greek play do not rest well alongside the more visceral, modern stories of the mistreatment of women in Africa and Afghanistan. When each monologue ends—by far the stronger half of The Traveling Players—and another sequence from The Trojan Women commences, it grows more and more difficult not to feel disappointed by the unnecessary and unimaginative portrayal of Euripides’ play. The friction between the play’s dual parts is exacerbated by its increasingly didactic scenes, like the one in which a woman in police custody cannot distinguish the stench of her own menstrual blood from that of a nearby animal carcass. But when the play ends and you just can’t shake those true-to-life monologues, it becomes clear that it is a rare case in which the facts outshine the legend.
The Traveling Players (1 hour; no intermission)
The Annex at La MaMa ETC (66 East 4th Street)
Performances: Concluded October 25
Performances: Concluded October 25