This performance of Hecuba marked a series of firsts for the Improbable Fictions staged reading troupe. It was their first of a planned three staged readings for this fall, their first foray outside of Shakespeare, and the first in their new home, The Bama Theatre’s Greensboro Room. It is a peculiar venue for drama. Folding chairs cluster on two sides of the stage area, which backs up to windows facing the street, windows which occasionally frame curious or bemused pedestrians. The room contains no raised stage; while it is always easy to hear the actors, it is sometimes difficult to see them. Actors who kneel or are below average height occasionally find themselves briefly obscured from view. While this is, at times, distracting, perhaps it is appropriate; Greek drama, with its masks and large theatre venues, was designed first and foremost to be heard.
While they may need some time to work out the kinks at their new home, the Improbable Fictions ensemble has unquestionably become stronger each semester since their foundation in the spring of 2010. This is drama stripped down to its most essential elements. They employ almost no props, limited lights, and simple costuming. In a subtle visual representation of the power dynamic within the world of the play, the Greek men, recent victors in the Trojan War, wear suits, while the enslaved Trojan women are clothed in simple dresses and head coverings. The performance features strong acting turns from everyone, all the way from Deborah Parker in the title role to an intimidating turn by Eric Marable, Jr. as a silent Greek solider.
Hecuba rests, of course, primarily on Hecuba, and from the first moment she comes on stage, Parker boils with intense grief and impotent rage. Through the course of the play, she embodies all the many faces of anguish and wrath, from her opening sobs, “Oh gods! I implore you, beat back these dreams, preserve my children,” to her final smug yet devastated pride at the carnage she has produced: “How do I care how I die? I have my revenge.” This torment stands out vividly because she is the only major character that expresses raw, unchecked emotion; throughout the play, she must constantly confront individuals intent on shielding their true feelings. Odysseus (Nic Helms) employs the language of a lawyer to tell her that her daughter Polyxena (Natalie Hopper) must die. He announces “Let me review the facts”; he callously plays down the importance of sorrow in the face of political realities; and he finally dismisses her pleas with the curt rejoinder, “Under these circumstances, the logical course is resignation.” Polyxena too must contain her grief to shield her mother; Hopper admirably keeps up a stoic front while her inner sorrow shows on the faces of the chorus of Trojan women behind her (Susie Johnson, Adella Smith, Phoebe Threatt, and Amber Gibson). The greatest emotional contrast appears between Hecuba and Agamemnon (David Ainsworth playing up Agamemnon’s controlled, politic civility to an extreme degree). His detached questioning of the distraught Hecuba seems astonishingly callous, and this calculated distancing makes it all the more striking when her kneeling pleas finally provoke a brief emotional reaction. He soon reverts to his political aloofness, but from that moment forward it is clear that he will provide the coverage of “justice” needed to allow Hecuba’s revenge. Agamemnon doubts her ability to avenge without help, but when she assures him with a brilliantly cold delivery, “Have no fear, I shall manage,” Agamemnon and the audience believe her. Set off by these many foils, Hecuba’s emotion seems all the more raw.
Hecuba’s revenge focuses on Polymester (Russell Frost in another scene-stealing support performance for the troupe, last seen in Hamlet), who murdered her last remaining son. Frost deftly portrays Polymester’s swift decline from slimy con man to a father in agony who can only watch as his sons are murdered moments before his own eyes are plucked out. He cries out “They destroyed me; they worse than destroyed me!” as Hecuba looks on grimly satisfied that, in a chain of events that has afforded her little control, she has still managed to punish one guilty party.
Perhaps the most striking element in the production is the result of an extra textual decision made by Director Steve Burch. The play opens with a speech from Polydorus (Joey Gamble), Hecuba’s son, murdered by Polymestor. Burch backs us up a moment, actually staging the murder as the opening action of the play, and having Polydorus rise from the dead and don a ghostly half mask to deliver his lines. Once finished with his introduction, Polydorus moves back and oversees the entire play instead of leaving the stage. When his sister is sacrificed (presented in a dumb show), he reaches down to lift up her ghost and put on her mask, welcoming her to the land of the dead. For the rest of the play, they both stand to the back of the stage, hands clasped, mutely observing. Greek drama, with its permeability between the land of the living and the realm of the dead, always affords some points of contact; one of Polyxena’s final questions to her mother is “What message shall I take to Priam and Hector?” Neither she nor her brother immediately make this journey, however, instead standing to witness the events unfold. The effect is to double the chorus; there is a living chorus of the enslaved and despairing Trojan women, and a mute, ghostly chorus, the standing embodiment of Hecuba’s mounting loss. When Agamemnon closes the play, “May heaven grant our ordeal is done at last,” his prayer seems to ask if there will be closure for the living and the dead.
Hecuba by Euripides was put on by Improbable Fictions on September 22, 2011, in the Greensboro Room of The Bama Theatre, Tuscaloosa, AL.