In sixth grade, we spent three weeks learning about the myths of Ancient Greece. They were typically stories of powerful demigods fighting fate, monsters and sometimes the gods themselves. They were stories like that of Herakles, the son of Zeus, and his twelve labors and the story of Jason and his quest to find the golden fleece. They may have even covered the story of Perseus and his slaying of the gorgon Medusa. However, there is one thing these stories have in common. Almost none of the popular ones were about women.
Contrary to this norm, “Women of Trachis” tells the story of Deianeira (Hannah Javidi), the wife of the famous demigod Herakles (Curtis Smith). She was repeatedly abandoned for extended amounts of time as Herakles traveled across Greece to complete his tasks. The audience meets Deianeira on the day Herakles is revealed to be returning home. While she is initially excited to be reunited with him, this is ruined by the arrival of her herald, Lichas (Noah Tepper). Lichas arrives trailing a “slave” behind him. It soon revealed that this slave is none other than Iole, a princess Herakles has taken as a lover and intends to have live with him and Deianeira in Trachis.
Once this news is revealed, the plot soon spirals into a full-scale Greek tragedy. In an attempt to save her role as a wife, Deianeira rubs the blood of a centaur on Herakles’ robe. She was led to believe that this blood would cause her husband to fall deeply in love with her. Instead, it is revealed to be poisonous. It smokes and burns, causing Herakles such tremendous amounts of pain that he murders Lichas and vows revenge on his wife. When Deianeira’s son Hyllus (Jacqueline Williams) informs her of what the centaur blood did to Herakles, Deianeira kills herself. It is then that the audience finally meets Herakles in person. He is bloody and in an impressive feat of special effects from the theater department, smoke emanates off of his body. He is so tortured that he requests that Hyllus burn him to death on a funeral pyre so that his suffering can end. However, his other final request is that Hyllus marry Iole. No one else is allowed to have her.
While all of this sounds traditionally Greek, UNC Charlotte’s production was anything but. UNC Charlotte’s Department of Theater performed the show from Oct. 25 to Oct. 29 in the Black Box Theater. This adaptation of “Women of Trachis” was written by Columbia University graduate Katherine Ryan and was produced off-off-Broadway in 2007. It attempts to infuse the Greek tragedy with pop culture references from the 60’s and 70’s. This was most apparent in the music of the show. While walking into the theater and waiting for the play to start, traditional 60’s and 70’s songs were played over the sound system. Even more obvious to audiences, was the Greek chorus’ performance of the song “Diamonds and Rust” by Joan Baez during the play.
From a design standpoint, the play looked great and was engaging for the eye. The set of the show was modern and featured a metal porch bench and a number of chandeliers, lighting fixtures and plain light bulbs. When the show lights dimmed and the background lights became the only lights in the room, it looked truly beautiful. The costume design was also exceptional, so much so that I would rank it as the best I’ve seen in my time at UNC Charlotte. While the cuts and general design of the costumes (especially the dresses) were midcentury modern, traditional Greek influences were still apparent. For example, the dresses the Greek chorus wore were the cut and style of white dress from the 1960’s. To bring the 60’s to the forefront even more, the members of the chorus all wore blond Marilyn Monroe-esque wigs. However, gold embroidery and its’ placement on the dresses seemed to indicate Greek style. Deianeira’s red dress was also similar in that it was a modern cut and style. However, it featured a long piece of fabric that hung loosely and ran down Deianeira’s arm in a way that seemed reminiscent of a toga. Her golden jewelry would have fit in perfectly in both the 60’s and in Greece. In this way, the design and script of the play caused it to bridge an exceptionally large amount of time. It seemed to take place both in the 60’s and in Ancient Greece almost simultaneously.
Stand out performances came from a number of different cast members. Firstly, Hannah Javidi as the story’s heroine Deianeira. She played the role believably and hit all of the right emotional notes. The audience rooted for her, even when it becomes painfully obvious that her actions would result in tragedy. Noah Tepper as Lichas made a character that could easily have been dismissed as weaselly and unlikeable come across exceptionally well. He was comedic and entertaining in a way that made the audience like and feel for the character. The other standout performances came from the chorus. “Women of Trachis” is ultimately a play from Ancient Greece, meaning it features a traditional Greek chorus. However, in this production, the chorus not only echoes the characters but is given its own personality. In fact, the members of the Greek chorus are even featured and expanded upon as individual characters. They express memories, fears and individual points of view. Sometimes, they are even used as comic relief. While the program does not list which specific chorus members did what, I must commend the two chorus members who sang “Diamonds and Rust.” Their voices were powerful, moving and set the exact right tone for the play.
The story of “Women of Trachis” is not a feminist play in the obvious sense. It does not feature empowered women, adventurous heroines, or attempt to subvert societal structures. Instead, it illustrates the plight of women in Ancient Greece (and in the 60’s) by focusing on the tragedy of their stories and their inability to change their outcomes. Deianeira is a woman trapped by her role as a wife. She must continue to stay married to Herakles, no matter how many times he is unfaithful to her. Furthermore, if Herakles dies, she is to receive nothing. Similarly, Herakles’ new lover Iole is trapped simply by being the object of Herakles’ affection. Herakles’ lust for her leads him to single-handedly destroy her entire city, murder her family and drag her across the country to live with him as a slave and lover. Not once in the entire show does Iole say anything, for she is a woman who, at least culturally, has no say in what happens to her and no ability to change her circumstances.
The show also poses an interesting question by having the Greek chorus be made up entirely of women (though three of them were played by men). Though the chorus plays a large role in illustrating characters’ actions and points of view, the chorus is ultimately unable to change or affect events. They are forced to bear witness to the great tragedy that is Deianeira’s story and even express feelings of guilt that they were unable to change her ending. It begs the question, who are the “women of Trachis”? Are they Deianeira and Iole? Or are they the Greek chorus itself? Either way, by taking Greek myth and centering it on the female characters, Ryan’s “Women of Trachis” provides an interesting look at the role of women in both Ancient Greece and in modern society, even drawing parallels between them. It makes a statement about the role of women and ultimately calls for the enfranchisement and empowerment of the gender. That is a theme I can get behind.