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Love and War 

Charles Mee's plays can be funny, but here the humor comes too late

Wednesday, Jun 6 2001
Charles Mee's plays are so eclectic and cheerfully bizarre that they begin to blur together. Summertime was about falling in love; it featured rants by a murderous pizza-delivery boy as well as a bikini-clad mother who broke into songs about Tuscany. Mee went out of his way to include "material from history, philosophy, insanity, inattention, judicial theory, the National Enquirer." He used the same collage method to retell Aeschylus' Suppliant Women in Big Love. After those two plays (both recently produced in the Bay Area) the weirdness of Trojan Women: A Love Story comes as no surprise. Hecuba in a cocktail dress? Sure. TV sets in Troy? Of course. Carthaginian ladies reciting the Kama Sutra to soldiers in Desert Storm fatigues? Why the hell not?

In Trojan Women, men stand for war and strut around in boots. Women, who stand for love, sit languidly in soft-colored fabrics. Instead of drawing characters, Mee likes to put stereotypes onstage -- and tweak them. He's a Vietnam-era historian who remembers a time when sex roles were stricter, so he starts with caricatures of women, men, and war that date from about 1965, then purées them in a cultural blender.

The show starts as a retelling of Euripides' Trojan Women, a Greek anti-war play that showed the widows and grieving mothers of the Greeks' traditional enemy. Here we watch Hecuba, her daughter-in-law Andromache, and a few others give speeches as they stagger through a partylike wreckage of crepe paper, computer junk, bricks, and corrugated metal. Bits of Picasso's Guernica decorate the back wall. Mee's characters rarely give interesting speeches, so I'll just mention the exceptions: Linda Jones delivers a strong soliloquy as the musing, half-crazed Andromache, holding a Raggedy Andy doll. "I remember there were Friday night dances at the golf club," she says lightly, before lapsing into a fugue about being a faithful wife. Then Hecuba's young daughter, Polyxena (Cassie Beck), comes on in a schoolgirl uniform, blond and fresh, to present herself as a slave to the Greeks. Her soliloquy is strong because Beck is so good at changing her moods. She can be innocent, plucky, and afraid within the space of a sentence. Her earnest, creased-forehead expressions nicely belie the Trojan wreckage around her; only at the end, when she's carried away, does the horror quite sink in. Before that she sings a surprisingly powerful version of No Doubt's "Just a Girl" (undermined by an echo effect on the PA). I've never seen Beck before, but she cooks.

Other actors don't do so well. Most of the men are awkward, except for Charles Blackburn as the highly civilized, victorious Greek general Talthybius, and Bret Anderson, who plays minor characters with a wiry intensity. I wish one of them could play Aeneas, because Adam Chipkin in that role seems uncomfortable all the way through. Opposite Chipkin, in the first act, Araxi Djian gives a pleasantly ironic, grief-wracked performance as Hecuba, but her longer speeches are serious and therefore (in a Mee play) empty. This is not Djian's fault. Wild hijinks are Mee's big talent, for better and for worse.

The second act follows Aeneas out of Euripides and into Virgil's Aeneid. He sails to Carthage, where he falls in love with Dido. Aeneas and his American fatigue-wearing buddies want to found a nation-state -- Rome -- that will avenge Troy by conquering Greece. In the Aeneid, of course, that's exactly what they do; in Mee's version, Dido drowns Aeneas in a plashing marble fountain because he has chosen destiny over romantic love.

In other words, she spares the rest of us the nuisance of a Roman Empire. Very funny. But it comes too late in the evening, after too much song and dance. Trojan Women: A Love Story shouldn't take nearly 2 1/2 hours to land a punch line. Yes, Marin Van Young (as Dido) does an impressive husky-voiced version of "I Wanna Be Seduced," and yes, Darin Wilson's live band is tight. But after a while the hijinks get old, and it doesn't matter whether we're watching Summertime or Trojan Women or a Saturday morning cartoon. Mee is serious about his nonsense; he wants to bust the conventions of psychological realism and find some new mode of writing plays, but his method reminds me of something the critic John Simon wrote about John Cage- style avant-gardism in the 1960s. ""My left shoe is an armadillo' and "A sacristan is a flying hexagon,'" he wrote, "strike me as much more nearly analogous statements than, let us say, "I want you' and "I need you.'" Mee's bold stride away from realism is less original than it seems.


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