09 April 2011

'Fragments of a Trilogy': La Mama 1976

[Thirty-five years ago around this time of year, I saw the La MaMa production of Fragments of a Trilogy conceived and directed by Andrei Serban, one of his first projects in the United States, with music by Elizabeth Swados, who was just beginning to show the talent and imagination for which was soon to be known. Ellen Stewart, the remarkable figure who led La MaMa for almost 50 years and was one of the founders of Off-Off-Broadway theater, had brought those two talents together out of a gut feeling that they would be a fit, and she was right. They went on to collaborate on several more theater projects, and Stewart continued to recruit and produce theater artists by intuition and an interest in their personalities more than any study of their work or analysis of their art—and she established an incredible record of accomplishment that way. Serban and Swados, along with some of the cast members of Fragments went on to become stars in their fields, as did many artists who appeared early in their careers at La MaMa. Stewart—Mama to all who knew her—died at 91 on 13 January, leaving as a legacy her artistic children and the memory of productions like this one.

[I originally wrote this review (most of the play reports I publish on ROT aren’t precisely reviews, but this one was) on 23 February 1976, a few days after I saw the innovative production. Fragments was first performed at the La MaMa Annex (now renamed the Ellen Stewart Theatre) on 21 June 1974 and immediately became a sensation. Mel Gussow, who reviewed the production for the New York Times in 1974 and then again in 1975, called it “nothing less than a reinvention of theater”; Walter Kerr, although he preferred the traditional versions, declared, “Something distinctive has been wrought and set before us . . . .” It played for years on and off. Stewart had heard of Serban’s work when she was in Europe in 1966, though she hadn’t seen any of it and hadn’t met him. She decided to bring him to the U.S. in 1969 and introduced him to audiences and critics here. (She had done the same for Jerzy Grotowski in 1967, another theater artist largely unknown in this country who came from an Eastern Bloc nation from which visas to visit the West were hard to arrange.) Serban directed Medea at La MaMa in 1971; it was eventually removed from the trilogy and wasn’t performed by the time I saw Fragments. Electra had been developed in 1973 for a Paris festival; The Trojan Women was created at La MaMa in 1974.]

The La Mama Experimental Theater Company’s current production, Fragments of a Trilogy: The Trojan Women and Electra, which finished its run this weekend at 66 E. 4th Street in New York City’s East Village after several years in the making, if nothing else was a fascinating experiment in language as dramatic action. As produced by the Great Jones Repertory Project created and directed by Andrei Serban, the plays were presented in ancient Greek with some lyrics of The Trojan Women in such languages as Mayan, Nahuatl (a dialect of the Aztec people), Inahien and Aztec.

The experiment began with a seemingly interminable waiting period among a crush of humanity in an outer room of the theater which serves as the lobby and lounge. Not only was I standing on my feet, but so were several other people whom I did not know. We were buffeted and bumped and overheated while trying to read outsized programs. Finally, after instructions on how to behave (follow the performers’ directions from area to area and maintain silence) , the actors made a procession through the lobby and we followed—or rather were carried along—after them into the theater proper.

The theater was a large, rectangular room at the far end of which was a standard proscenium stage with a bare wooden construction resembling a large wooden scaffold. Along both sides of the room were more scaffold—like constructions that increased step—like in height as they receded to the back. Half of the back wall was similarly built up, but the other half, to the right of the door, was built to resemble a Mayan pyramid with a steeply raked ramp running up to a platform off the right and left of which ran stairs to a further playing area for The Trojan Women. An additional “pyramid,” reached by a long straight staircase reminiscent of the Man of La Mancha set, was added for Electra, with a small platform in the center of the room.

The first half of the program, The Trojan Women, which La Mama called an epic opera based on the play by Euripides, was mostly chanted or sung to music composed by Elizabeth Swados and played on flute, drum and trombone. The ostensible concept of both plays was to engage the audience visually and auditorially without resorting to the intellect. We were constantly assaulted by sounds and sights calculated to hit directly at our emotions. We were not expected to understand what we heard, but to fee’ it viscerally. The cast used the words for the sounds they could produce rather than the semantic meanings they conveyed.

The Trojan Women started with the audience standing in a mass several hundred strong in the theater room with the actors on the pyramid where the women were subdued by the victorious Greek soldiers. From there, the crowd was guided by chanting performers from place to place as they progressed around the various playing areas, including parts of the floor in our midst. (These scenes often took place in a tumbrel-like cart.) We witnessed Hecuba (Jane Lind) do a fire dance on the scaffold and be dragged away with a noose around her neck, Cassandra (Valois Mickens) predict doom to an unheeding multitude, Andromaca (Priscilla Smith) anoint her son, Astianax (Diane Lane), for his execution and Helen (Joanna Peled) be stripped, begrimed and raped. All this while we remained standing and crowded together like refugees from a present-day Troy. If it were not for my feet, it might have been an effective way of tangibly demonstrating how war brutalizes everyone: the victors, the vanquished and the innocent victims. However, much of this went on too long, such as the rape sequence and the preparation of Astianax for execution. Mercifully, we were finally directed to sit down and a mad scramble ensued as we grabbed seats on benches, platforms and cushions. The rest of the program was viewed from these positions along the two sides and half of the back wall. From these seats we were witnesses to the final humiliation of the Trojans—Astianax thrown from the pyramid, their enslavement and shipment to Greece. There was a marvelous scene in which a young weaver (Neal Harris) commits a ritual suicide on the pyramid and falls in slow motion down the ramp. It was also an interesting reversal of Greek dramatic usage to cast a young girl as Prince Astianax.

After a much needed intermission—also mostly standing—the program resumed when we were reushered into the theater for Electra, originally developed by La Mama in Paris in 1973. This was called a miracle play and was more chanted than sung, although Ms. Swados’s music was still featured. La Mama’s Electra, based on Sophocles, outlined the Oresteian legend from the murder of King Agamemnon (Richard Jakiel) by his wife, Clytemnestra (Joanna Peled), and her lover, Aegistus (William Duff-Griffin), when Orestis (Batrick Burke) was a child, through his return as a young man to revenge his father’s death and rescue his sister, Electra (Priscilla Smith), from servitude and grief. Orestis leaves Electra wedded to Pilades (Charles Hayward) as the new queen in Mycenae.

By the time we reentered the theater and were seated for Electra, we were so exhausted by the previous ordeal, the rasping wailing of Ms. Smith’s Electra was monotonous and enervating rather than stimulating and moving. The chanting of the chorus, punctuated by muted bells, became soporific and victory of the righteous Orestis and Electra over the sinful Clytemnestra and Aegistus was a merciful end to a long assault on one’s ears rather than holy vengeance.

The final analysis of the experience is that it was intellectually interesting (an ironic adverb, considering the intention of the program), physically exhausting and too long. One show would have been plenty—without the waiting and standing. The idea was good, but for me the application did not work. I do not believe that I am less receptive to emotional assaults, but too much tends to be anesthetic. I was glad for the cool evening walk home.

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