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The taste of dirt filled my mouth as I took my seat at the East River Park Amphitheater for En Garde Arts' site-specific production of "The Trojan Women A Love Story." The space had been abandoned since Joseph Papp presented the first outdoor New York Shakespeare Festival offerings there over 30 years ago, and the dust is still present.

But this is entirely appropriate for Charles L. Mee, Jr.'s retelling of the classic story. In Act I, played in the indoor portion of the theatre, we are in a blasted munitions factory where the women of Troy assemble parts while the conquering Greeks determine their fate. For the second act, the audience leaves the dirty interior behind and is moved outside to a pristine health spa. Here the war widows of Carthage tryst with the male Trojan refugees who've washed ashore on their land. James Schuette's sets, Anita Yavich's costumes, and Blake Burba's lights create the twin worlds of grimy Troy and deceptively beautiful Carthage.

Mee and director Tina Landau have combined elements of Euripides' "The Trojan Women" and the operas "Les Troyens" and "Dido and Aeneas" with numerous references to modern popular culture for a bizarre and absorbing dissertation on war (Act I) and love (Act II). We are shown conflicts between nations (the Trojan War) mirrored in the eternal conflict between man and woman (the tragic love affair of Aeneas, expatriate prince of Troy, and Dido, queen of Carthage).

Landau's electric staging is unpredictably inventive. We never know what's coming next. Scenes of cruelty and violence are followed by production numbers performed and staged with manical energy. It's like channel-surfing between CNN, MTV, and American Movie Classics.

The cast members give off-kilter, stylized performances, as if standing to one side and commenting on their characters. Marin Mazzie's Helen of Troy is a petulant Ann-Margret sex-kitten, while Sharon Scruggs transforms the mad Cassandra into a leather-clad dominatrix with a touch of Marlene Dietrich chanteuse. Tom Nelis, Steven Skybell, Jane Nichols, Nancy Hume, and Jason Danieley are also worthy of mention in the large ensemble.

Although they are playing archetypes and caricatures, the actors are always in the moment. The result is a double-edged sword: a moving adaptation of timeless legends and a thought-provoking commentary on them from a contemporary perspective.

Presented by En Garde Arts at the East River Park Amphitheater, FDR Drive at the East River, NYC, June 30-July 14.




Samm-Art Williams' new play, "In My Father's House," is a powerful work that confronts head-on the crucial contemporary problems for black Americans. Major characters step forward to address speeches directly to the audience, and the question is not, "Which side are you on?" but, "Which way is the right way?"

The play takes place in the Los Angeles house of Joshua Thurman, a black, America-loving ex-Marine, at the very moment when the streets of L.A. are exploding following the first Rodney King verdict. And Felix E. Cochran's informing set delineates the radical contrasts in black-American life--for it contains the Thurman family's comfortable stucco living room, protected by an outer wire fence, and a foreground that permits the wild street scenes integral to the play.

Though it is funny and angry by turns, the basic mood of Williams' play is suffused with a sense of sadness and loss. Portraying the aging Joshua Thurman with conviction and warmth, Charles Weldon surveys his house and declares, "This neighborhood was supposed to be our paradise." Later he will describe how he first got hooked on John F. Kennedy's dream--not Martin Luther King's--of the Great Society.

The broad social-political themes are spiced by the private problems between Joshua and his wife, and Peggy Alston delivers a rich and bawdy portrayal of a woman in open rebellion against a husband so concerned with national problems and the TV news that he has ceased to satisfy her sexual needs.

Joshua has two sons: One, a policeman (Kim Sullivan), is a perfect ideological replica of his father, while the younger (Amani Gethers) is out of work and on the street trying to create the revolution. Together, they represent the two extreme choices that this play struggles to examine and reconcile.

Three fine performers--Maurice Carlton, Caroline Stefanie Clay, and Marvin-Kazembe Jefferson--make up a chorus of street people who are more farcical than menacing. Director Walter Dallas makes sure that this play strikes home with force and clarity.

Samm-Art Williams has written a lively and fascinating didactic melodrama . Happy the playwright who knows his audience!

Presented by Marjorie Moon at the Billie Holiday Theatre, 1368 Fulton St., B'klyn, June 30-July 28.




Free advice to playwrights: Avoid lines like "I can't take anymore. I want to go home." Leon Katz's "Sonya," the season opener at the Phoenix Theatre Company in Purchase, N.Y., is a dank play that, like the train that startlingly arrives on stage at the beginning, goes nowhere the rest of the evening.

Luckily, the great Julie Harris plays the title character, the wife of Count Tolstoy, who's dying in a cottage by a railroad siding. "Russia's saint" had left Sonya some time ago and his hangers-on--children, doctors, friends--believe it best she doesn't see him. Peasants await the end, newshounds try to get a story, a priest yearns to convert the once-excommunicated author, and Sonya wants to make sense of it all.

In two and a half hours of Shakespearean-size hysteria, accusations, recriminations, and lies ping-pong around Campbell Baird's huge, handsome set. We get too many "I remember" speeches--too much told, not shown. Characters don't interact in ways that would let audiences puzzle over meanings and truths about the Tolstoy family.

Sonya's efforts to enter the cottage soon become repetitious. The other main present-tense action consists of her four distressed children wondering what's in papa's will.

Author Katz has a lot on his mind: How does a writer's public life impinge on his private relationships? What is the value of a celebrity's existence? Who is above society's rules? Can past rifts ever be repaired?

Harris is called upon to cry a lot, fall on her knees, and spit out denunciations, all of which she does with power and soul. As the troubled children, Miriam Healy-Louie is a complex Sasha, Reno Roop a fearful Sergey, Jennifer Harmon an accommodating Tatiana, and Jud Meyers a bitter Andrey. Timothy Jerome is warm as Dushan, but Philip Baker Hall is stuck in the melodramatic role of Chertkov.

Bram Lewis directs with variety, using the large stage to advantage. Amela Baksic's costumes help set the play in its time, as does Dennis Parichy and Shawn K. Kaufman's melancholy lighting.

Presented by Phoenix Theatre Company at Pepsico Theatre, Purchase, NY, July 5-21.




Maybe if you're a dumb white male, into Nintendo games, buddy-buddy flicks, and six-packs, Anthony Clarvoe's "Pick Up Ax" is the happenin' thing, dude. On second thought, if the profile fits, you're probably not hangin' at the local Off-Off.

A David Mamet clone of salacious male fantasies, the play is set in a Silicon Valley software corporation of "high growth" potential. But the scenery is more reminiscent of a seedy home-appliance repair shop operated by a couple of small-time losers. Clarvoe's knowledge of mergers, take-overs, and leveraged buy-outs seems limited to the commonplace. This could be overlooked if the "Faustian twist" were more fully developed. As it is, Keith (Neil Necastro), a brainy techno-freak, plays "Dungeons and Dragons" without wresting real power away from corporate raiders. When, in the end, he triumphs over the "powers of darkness" in the guise of a second-rate M.B.A. (David Mogentale), the audience is left in the dark as to whether, how, and to whom Keith has sold his soul. Having removed his sweet but inept partner (Thomas Wehrle), Keith may act like a "Master of the Universe," but the sharks are still out there circling.

James Abar's direction relies heavily on the sound design by Adam Adams. Still, two guys "moshing" to music by the Grateful Dead doesn't substitute for story. And, while the curved lines of Andrea Bechert's set design almost succeed in tricking the eye, enclosing the stage in walls that change color in order to accommodate the idea of a "mood room" draws too much attention to the real limitations of this tiny space.

The production suffers from the same problem as the computer games the title of the play refers to: You end up at the same place where you began. You may feel like you've conquered the world, but in reality, you've merely "zoned out" for a few hours of entertainment.

Presented by 29th Street Repertory Theatre, 212 W. 29th St., NYC, June 19-July 13.

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