Saturday, April 6, 2024

"Hecuba" by Pangea World Theater

Last month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Pangea World Theater's General Manager Adlyn Carreras and Production Manager Suzanne Victoria Cross, along with my fellow blogger Julie from Minnesota Theater Love, for our podcast Twin Cities Theater Chat (listen here or wherever you listen to podcasts). It truly was eye-opening to learn about all of the programs that this organization offers, in addition to what we traditionally think of as theater. I found them to be incredibly thoughtful and passionate about the work of community building and lifting up diverse voices. With this as their foundation, it's no wonder that the theater they create is relevant and inclusive and has something to say about our world. Such is Hecuba, a millennia old story retold by modern day Irish playwright Marina Carr, whose By the Bog of Cats, a loose retelling of Medea, was produced by Theatre Pro Rata last year. Similar to that play, this Hecuba reimagines a mythical figure as a real, flawed, relatable woman who is trying to survive in unimaginable circumstances. The history of the world is a history of war, violence (often towards women), and genocide, and unfortunately the daily news is also littered with such stories. This mythical story about the brutality of war, set at the end of the Trojan War, is all too relevant. It's a beautifully written play, and Pangea's regional premiere production features a strong cast, effective elements of physical theater, and a sparsely beautiful design set against the gorgeous backdrop of the Southern Theater, all elements combining for a powerful and sobering experience.

Not being the most familiar with Greek plays, I read the Wikipedia summary of Euripides' Hecuba before seeing this play. But I don't think you need to, the situation is spelled out clearly from the start - Hecuba, Queen of the fallen Troy, is grieving the death of her husband King Priam and all but one of her sons. Agamemnon, leader of the victors, comes to taunt her, taking her and her daughters Cassandra (cursed with prophesy never to be believed) and Polyxena as slaves of the winning Greeks. Hecuba has hope that her youngest son Polydorus, sent away for safety, is still alive, but those hopes are soon dashed. When the Greeks demand Polyxena as a sacrifice to the gods for favorable winds (similar to Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia to start the war), she descends even further into grief.

The play is written as narration rather than dialogue, with characters reciting what they or another character say, along with "I said" or "he said." It's really interesting to observe which dialogue is said by the character who says it, or relayed by another character, and the emotions that go into both. They often also tell us directly what they think, which gives us greater insight into each character's thoughts and emotions than straight dialogue would. It almost feels like they're enacting a story from the past as they're telling it, rather than living it in the moment.

Pangea's Artistic Director Dipankar Mukherjee directs the 105-minute-no-intermission piece with fluidity and intense emotion, the story moving continuously to its conclusion. The talented 10-person cast carry this intense emotion well, rarely leaving the stage, sitting on the sidelines in a gray smock watching when not in the action of the scene. Suzanne Victoria Cross is really wonderful as Hecuba, balancing the regal bearing of a Queen who's used to being in charge with the helpless grief of a mother who's lost everything. Matthew Saxe is scary good as Agamemnon as he orders death and destruction, showing a bit of humanity when he remembers his own loss. Everyone in the ensemble contributes in some way small or large, emoting and adding movement (with choreography by Sandra Agustin) even from the sidelines. Highlights include Ankita Ashrit as the flowy and floating Cassandra, Anne Guadagnino as the young but tougher-than-she-looks Polyxena, Ernest Briggs as Polydorus' conflicted protector, and Tyler Stamm showing us a different side of the hero Odysseus.

With the weathered glory of the arch at the Southern Theater, you don't need much more set dressing, and this production wisely keeps it simple. Three white tapestries are hung on the back wall, subtly lit with different colors to change tone or location. A rustic wooden throne and a couple of benches are the only furniture. Characters are dressed in Greek-inspired costumes or military garb. Another lovely feature of this production is the soundscape created by Bethany Lacktorin, playing violin, percussion, and other instruments that aid in the storytelling. (Lighting design by Mike Grogan, costume design by Mary Ann Kelling.)

A treatise on the horrifying effects of war, particularly on the women and children who get in its way, this gorgeous and tragic Hecuba plays at the Southern Theater in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis through April 21 only.