Women and war onstage: Lysistrata and Trojan Women

Women and War Onstage 
By Walter Ang
September 2004

THOSE born in the first half of September fall under Virgo, a zodiac sign associated with deities such as the Egyptian goddess Isis or the Greek goddess Demeter. Perhaps it is Virgo's cosmic influence this month that has spurred two theater companies to stage productions that feature quite opposite renderings of the same theme from ancient Greek drama: women and war.

First is Aristophanes' comedy "Lysistrata," revived by the University of the Philippines' Dulaang U.P. For a company that thinks nothing of full frontal nudity, director Ameil Lenoardia has staged a surprisingly restrained and straightforward version of this sex satire.

In the English run, Missy Maramara injects Lysistrata (whose name means "breaker of the army") with an almost masculine authority as she leads the Athenian women to hold a sex strike to force their husbands to end the Peloponnesian war. The energetic cast attempt to stick to their vow of abstinence on a classically designed set by Tuxqs Rutaquio at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater.

While the women convince their husbands to "make love, not war" with hilarious encounters, opening night jitters may have made the cast seem guarded with the usual cheeky attitude and bawdy body language expected of a Greek comedy. The cast's dynamic should blossom though by the time they start performing the new Filipino translation by Jerry Respeto.

In contrast, the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Tanghalang Pilipino does not merely resurrect Euripede's tragedy "Trojan Women," it thoroughly deconstructs it. When you enter the Aurelio Tolentino Theater, the look alone of the set design tells you this won't be the usual Greek drama where characters wear togas and wave olive branches above their heads.

Production designer Gino Gonzales has created a harsh, off-kilter space. He sets a vast raked (theaterspeak for inclined) platform biased against the actual stage's edge. The backdrop is a towering wall of corrugated metal sheets punctuated by industrial light fixtures and barbed wire.

Foregoing her signature ornate gobo (light shone through cut-out patterns) designs, lighting designer Shoko Matsumoto orchestrates the light fixtures so that they alternately shine with menace or glow with sorrow. By illuminating mostly from the side of the stage, Matsumoto adds to the sense of imbalance required by this play that deals with the aftermath of the fall of Troy.

Gonzales and Matsumoto have done an outstanding job of casting a foreboding atmosphere for director Jose Estrella's interpretation of women left in the wake of war. To set the tone, Estrella begins the tragedy with her cast prostrate on strewn clothing that covers every available surface.

To further draw the audience into the confusion and dread caused by warfare, the disjointed elements keep on coming. Here is an ancient Greek tragedy where women wear kimonos over their evening gowns and male soldiers are in fatigues. The characters speak in Filipino and Taglish while making modern references to electricity and Princeton University. Then the cast merges Euripedes' text with lines from Charles Mee's modern interpretation, "Trojan Women: A Love Story."

Jose Capino's Filipino translation makes the lines sound visceral and earthy, yet it was also delicious to hear Helene (played by Kalila Aguilos) speak in straight English and even sing in French. She is a foreigner after all and unlike the popular movie "Troy" which portrays the face that launched a thousand ships as an oh-so-delicate innocent, here she is despised and reviled as the root of much strife.

Bearing the brunt of all this strife is the central character Hekabe (Hecube) alternately played by Divina Cavestany and Madeleine Nicolas. Cavestany leads a strong ensemble with her compelling performance as the Trojan queen. Never leaving the stage throughout the two-hour run, she epitomizes anguish while anchoring the wretched stories of her daughters, whose miserable fates are made known one by one.

The cast's suffering is made flesh by the nuanced but striking choreography of married tandem Nonoy and Edna Vida Froilan. This unyielding inventory of pain, misery and humiliation culminates in a powerful ending not to be missed.

The enduring power of these Greek dramas shows us the universality of striving for human dignity amidst discord and dismay. With current world socio-econo-politics the way it is, Lysistrata and Hekabe are the everywoman in our lives. So it was in the 400s B.C., so it still is in the 2000s A.D.