Adaptation at its best is like spirited debate, two viewpoints mingling in an act both collaborative and contentious. When less successful, it's more like mainstream political debate: watered-down, static, and polite. It leaves us asking, What's the point of arguing if we tend to agree? More specifically, what's the point of adapting the classics if we're not willing to shake things up? This is the question evoked by Steven Wolfson's reverent, humorless adaptations of Euripides' Trojan Woman and Iphigenia in Aulis, adaptations that hammer home the obvious and shy away from the topical.
It may seem ridiculous to criticize an adaptation of Greek tragedy for being humorless; so under "humor" include the off-kilter, the unexpected, the inappropriate. This is taboo stuff in Wolfson's Trojan Women: Menelaus enters wearing a stoic expression and a sparkly blouse, and we realize it isn't supposed to be funny. Rather than offering unique access into the tragedy, the production paints the brutality of war in broad strokes, admonishing us with Susan Hurley's driving, minor-key compositions and beating us out of the drama with dialogue that's short on resonant detail and long on Hallmark-style platitudes ("Buried deep in the heart of a woman, there is a reserve [of hope] no man can get at"). Director Elizabeth Huffman offers no relief, allowing Nancy Jeris' Hecuba to grovel and beat on the floor excessively and lingering indulgently over the most obvious moments of horror.
Coupled with Wolfson's notably omissive adaptation, Huffman's direction also steamrolls all nuance from Iphigenia in Aulis, transforming Agamemnon into a bellowing, soulless monster. In the role, Pascal Henault yells through 90 percent of his dialogue, turning most of the scenes into tiresome and rather comical volume contests.
Despite the adaptations' tendency to generalize, it would be false to say there isn't a specific project in mind here: to explore war strictly as a gender conflict between the men who want it and the women who don't. In service of this idea, Wolfson celebrates his female characters—and perhaps women in general—as history's great martyrs, caught in a cycle of repeated male mistakes and perpetual sacrifice. And yet, while the adapter burdens his women with cold, logical speeches about their places in history, he's extremely timid about drawing any overt correlation between the characters and current events. "Look at me," the women tell us in several languages, in the show's closing "Dance of Forgiveness," which dramatizes a healing of the rift between war-mongering man and victimized woman. We look. And while what we see should be recognizable, heartbreaking, and maddening, it isn't. In a time of suffering, the show's message is simply not bold enough.
"Trojan Woman and Iphigenia in Aulis," presented by and at Theatre of Arts, 12242 Hawthorn Ave., Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Apr. 10-May 11. $10. (323) 463-2500.