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Regional Reviews: Boston

Regional Reviews by Matthew Small

Trojan Barbie
American Repertory Theatre

Also see Matthew's interview with Diane Paulus

Karen MacDonald
Playwright Christine Evans melds contemporary art and culture with an ancient, mythical war in her explosive new work, Trojan Barbie. American Repertory Theatre, in a season led by Gideon Lester, presents the world premiere at Cambridge's Zero Arrow Theatre in association with the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theatre Training.

Lotte, a middle-aged British doll repairwoman played by Karen MacDonald, opts to go on a Turkish excursion in search of good times and charming men. But fair weather soon disappears when she becomes trapped in a war zone that only the theater—fueled by generations of worldly violence—can bring to life. The tormented characters of Euripides' classic Trojan Women emerge to shatter the constructs of time and reality from deep within David Reynoso's chilling, crumbling cement and metal set. The surreal darkness sheds light into the ignored corners of today's global community and identifies the harsh pain that war brings to those who did not invite it.

Director Carmel O'Reilly collaborates with her creative team to marry strong design elements within a challenging performance space. The production is visually stunning, with a mesmerizing lighting design by Justin Townsend. Reynoso's gowns for the destructress Helen (Careena Melia) are gorgeous—just one of many beautiful pieces. The contemporary and often appropriately jarring sound design is by David Remedios.

MacDonald's naïve fish-out-of-water approach seems recognizable to most of us cozy Cambridge theatergoers who have been spared the horrors of inhabiting a war-torn country. The Trojan women, led by an extraordinary Paula Langton as Hecuba, are already familiar with their fates in the hands of the conquering men who invaded their shores.

The ensemble's performances are stylized and engaging. One particularly powerful scene stayed with me long after the final bows. Soldiers on duty in a foreign land, Jorge and Max (Jim Senti and Carl Foreman) walk the line of possibly good men who can easily become predators when morality runs aground. It is painfully clear they will shatter the innocence of teenager Polly X (Kaaron Briscoe) during a disturbing after-hours encounter at a local zoo. Their interaction places us face-to-face with the reality endured by countless women and girls caught up in wars around the globe.

Evans does not spoon-feed her audience with the script. In order to fully grasp her rich storytelling, she expects us to do our homework beforehand. Though the piece works without prior background knowledge, a pre-show refresher on the Trojan myths helped me follow the juxtaposed worlds and appreciate the many layers within her play.

The playwright is not interested in our comfort, though there are many entertaining moments in her writing. Instead, she asks that we consider the suffering of people we do not know in lands we may never visit. If you're willing to go there, the experience is thought-provoking and rewarding.

Sometimes the clashing styles are less effective. In particular, the odd transition into a '40s cruise boat dance near the end is distracting and might be revisited for another production. Finding a resolution to any play must be difficult. Though attempting to serves as a recognizable bookend, the final scene seems to drift away from the more intense tone of the piece. Living as a prisoner surrounded by gun-wielding men must change Lotte more than this current draft does.

Some theatergoers may be fatigued by the prospect of another war-laden story. Find comfort in knowing that this play is not preachy or romantic, but an imaginative, time-warped view of the ongoing challenges women have faced since foreign conflict first raged thousands of years ago. Their story is our story.

Trojan Barbie runs through April 22 at Zero Arrow Theater, 2 Arrow Street, Cambridge. For tickets and information, call (617) 547-8300 or visit

Photo: Michael Lutch

— Matthew Small