The fearless Pearl Theater Company has bravely launched its latest incarnation of Racine's 17th century tragedy Andromache, soon to be playing in repertory with the early 18th century French comedy A Will of his Own. Certainly interesting programming, this pairing of classic French theater is intended to satisfy the audience's taste for both comedy and tragedy in the same season. Indeed, both plays were selected by The Comedie Francaise in the early 18th century to run in rotating repertory.
Andromache is a very demanding play based on the tragic aftermath surrounding some of the survivors of the Trojan War. The main characters are Orestes (Christopher Moore), son of Agamemnon who loves Hermione (Celeste Ciulla), Helen's daughter. Hermione loves and is betrothed to Pyrrhus (Arnie Burton), son of Achilles and King of Eprius, who is obsessively in love with Andromache (Rachel Botchan), Hector's widow and a captive of Pyrrhus. In other words, everyone loves the wrong person. Barring a magic elixir or a Midsummer Night to turn everyone toward the appropriate partner, this is pretty much a formula for tragedy. To carry this play without looking foolish, our four wildly passionate royal characters require four superb performances. This is a daunting task for a small repertory company in the East village.
Without stage props or visual effects to help, the actors must count only on themselves to engage the audience. The play begins with the clenched toothed Christopher Moore, as Orestes, explaining the history of events that led to his return to Epirus to reclaim, by hook or crook, his love, Hermione. Unfortunately, Mr. Moore looks more like a rich kid just graduating from one of the Ivys who for some unknown reason is wearing Greek battle gear, rather than a warrior claiming his bride. His overwrought recounting of events and plans for the future, brings forth that uh-oh feeling of amateur night in Des Moines. Thankfully, performances improved as the play progressed. Rachel Botchan, as the unfortunate Andromache, is, perhaps, the brightest spot of the evening. She understands the sad complexity of her situation. Celeste Ciulla's Hermione, managed to extract a few laughs from the audience, which is not always easy in a tragedy. Arnie Burton, as Pyrrhus, makes a competent, if not riveting, King of Epirus.
To its credit The Pearl Theater Company is giving New York the opportunity to experience this rarely performed work of classic French Theater. With a better translation and a more complete production, an engrossing theatrical experience might have emerged. Unfortunately, the performances are more like individual recitations than the interacting personalities of a compelling play. Each actor performed his or her part with only the weakest connection to anyone else on stage. We get the main points without the emotional pull that is the enjoyment of a fine production.
Despite these reservations, this is a rare opportunity for serious theatergoers to view Racine's Andromache. Perhaps it is better to take advantage of this less than perfect production than to never have the chance to experience this important work of world theater.
Pictured: Rachel Botchan as Andromache and Arnie Burton as Pyrrhus. Photo by Tom Bloom
Pearl Theater Company