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Hecuba

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

If there's something mysterious about the intimate relationship between love and hate, the close kinship of grief and hatred is much easier to understand. Or at least it usually is. Though both feelings are hopelessly intertwined in Euripides's powerfully uncertain Hecuba, the Pearl Theatre Company's new production renders them almost entirely indiscernible.

That's not to say there's not a lot happening onstage. In terms of singing, dancing, and rabid emoting, this is a full-out, heavy-duty production that's been directed by Shepard Sobel to spare no emotional expense. But only in isolated moments do the words and actions of those onstage coalesce into something truly resembling humanity; the characters are otherwise as cool and remote as stone statues safely secured behind a museum's velvet ropes.

In telling the story of Hecuba, the queen of Troy, who's lost her home and is about to lose what remains of her family, that's a tougher sell. But it's not immediately contradictory: If one envisions Hecuba and the Trojan women as the true victims of the Greek onslaught and resigned to their fates, thus acting strictly out of innate, instinctual necessity, the contrast between the Trojans' words and their actions does make sense.

If that's Sobel's intention, it's not effectively realized with the casting of Joanne Camp as Hecuba. Oh, she looks ideal: Tall, simply but elegantly dressed (by costume designer Devon Painter), and bearing shock-white hair that makes her look like an insomniac Uta Hagen, Camp's commanding presence and voice suggest a firm but fragile regality. She might be able to maintain her composure when she's dethroned by the Greeks, but when circumstances rob her of her daughter and then her son, there's enough of her left to shatter into a million violent pieces.

Though Hecuba begins the play well into the downward spiral from which she only escapes by exacting revenge on her son's murderer (Polymestor, the king of Thrace), it's her transition from anguish to anger to vengeance that provides the story its emotional and tragic dimensions. As Camp plays her, from the beginning lost in her sorrow, confusion, and rage, there's never an opportunity for us to sympathize with her. So there's no journey for Hecuba to make once events spin even more out of her control.

Whether reaching to the heavens for assistance, pleading with Greek commander Agamemnon for permission to act out against Polymestor, or keening in the wake of yet another dead body, Camp convinces only externally. Her eyes are glazed over with affected crystalline wildness - Hecuba's true inner thoughts remain unrepresented, the demons that slowly possess her and convince her to give into what she initially rebels against remain safely caged.

The other performers have difficulty committing even as much as Camp does. John Livingstone Rolle, as both Odysseus and Agamemnon, behaves with a staid, deflated manner that conveys none of the power either man has over Hecuba or her charges. Carolyn Rattaray portrays both of Hecuba's children with an adolescent modernity that's not in keeping with the serious, timeless atmosphere Sobel is generally successful at evoking. The chorus of captive Trojan women (Rachel Botchan, Vinie Burrows, and Carol Schultz) look and sound as if they're refugees from a bus-and-truck production of Les Miserables.

Only Dominic Cuskern manages to connect with both his roles and with us: As the Greek herald Talthybius, he's utterly reserved and stately, restricting his movement to only the most necessary gestures and steps; when he reappears later as Polymestor, he communicates absolute authority that, when ripped away from him by Hecuba's actions, destroys him from the inside out.

The mask he's wearing (designed by James Seffens) seems to adjust itself from a neutral visage to one of abject sorrow. Yes, his tears, of both saline and blood, are merely fabric extensions the actor yanks from the mask's eye sockets. Yet Cuskern's cries, which both boom and sear, are drenched with the very essence of heartbreak. For the first time, you not only feel the character's pain but you understand the true point of the evening: the consequences of unchecked vengeance can all too easily extend beyond the immediate.

And this makes you feel wholly in sync with Euripides, who comprehended with absolute clarity the basest hopes, needs, and fears of the heart and could render them theatrically enough to shock and stun us some 2400 years later. Cuskern's breakdown unites you spiritually with the first audiences ever to see Hecuba, forcing you to experience Polymestor's emotions and points of view as if for the first time.

It's simply tour-de-force work, of a complexity otherwise unmatched in this production - it also makes you realize just how much Polymestor and Hecuba really do have in common. So, one must wonder: Has Cuskern ever considered trying out for the title role?


Pearl Theatre Company
Hecuba
Through February 12
Pearl Theatre Company, 80 St Marks Place (eastern extension of 8th Street) between First and Second Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatermania