Review: Trojan Girls & The Outhouse of Atreus

by Lynn on August 9, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Factory Theatre (Studio and Courtyard), Toronto, Ont. Until Aug. 28, 2022.

Written by Gillian Clark

Directed by Mitchell Cushman

Set by Anahita Dehbonehie

Costumes by Nick Blais

Lighting by Jareth Li

Sound by Heidi Chan

Audio system design by Michael Laird

Cast: Katherine Cullen

Liz Der

Sébastien Heins

Amy Keating

Elena Reyes

Cheyenne Scott

Merlin Simard

Jeff Yung

A creative production of a confusing, sometimes incomprehensible play that needs judicious dramaturgy and editing.

The Story. From the Factory Theatre website:  “The fated collision of Greek mythology and GREASE mythology, unfolding in two locations at the same time. Welcome to New Troy, Canada, August 2009. The night of the annual Duck ‘ n’ Swing dance. Odysseus hatches a death-defying Prom-posal, Nestra and King Memnon rendezvous in the Outhouse for some old Summer Lovin’, and Cassandra feasts on raw hot dogs while sooth-sayin’ the world’s destruction.

An epic exploration of inheritance in the age of Climate Emergency, with two plays performed simultaneously by the same ensemble. Half the audience gathers outdoors around the campfire, and half cuts a rug in the dance hall, while the actors race back-and-forth—inhabiting both the teenagers of New Troy and their middle-aged parents. Then at intermission everyone switches, as the stakes of the 50/50 raffle continue to climb.”

Often when the play is so confused and confusing, so spare of a developed story or characters, it’s best to let the theatre website etc. try and explain.

The Production.  Director Mitchell Cushman and his stalwart cast have embraced the challenge of performing the two parts of Trojan Girls & The Outhouse of Atreus simultaneously in the Courtyard of the Factory Theatre and the Studio Theatre, with gusto and conviction. This trick is not new. Alan Ayckbourn carried this off nicely in 2000 in his plays: House and Garden. But for our purposes, one smiles at the ongoing chutzpah of Mitchell Cushman in his ever-increasing efforts in pushing the envelope to keep challenging himself and his audience in these ‘immersive’ endeavors.

Trojan Girls is played out in the Courtyard of the Factory Theatre where the characters from certain Greek myths are in their teens. Set designer extraordinaire, Anahita Dehbonehie, has created an environment of walls full of graffiti, discarded junk, a large round structure that is used as a fire pit and the decorated levels of the Factory Theatre in the background. The audience sits in banked rows of seats facing the space and the theatre up at the back.

The cast wears head microphones and the audience wears headphones to hear them in an effort to block out the intense background noise of the traffic and people on the street. The cast is in the funky garb of hip youth (kudos to costume designer, Nick Blais.) Laid-back and bored Helen, aged 13 (a wonderful Katherine Cullen) is in a tight bright top, short skirt and thigh-high black suede boots. She thinks New Troy, Ontario is so provincial since she has just come from the bright lights of Calgary. Cassandra, who sees into the future (serious, concerned Amy Keating,) is in jean shorts, and layers of clothing. Menelaus as played by a convincing Sébastien Heins, is the eager and nerdy kid who is smitten by the unattainable Helen. Everything he wears is pristine and perfectly coordinated.  

Characters exit and enter at great speed dealing with each new character with precious little information to identify who they are, who they might become and what their story is. Odysseus (well played as trying to be macho by Jeff Yung), is fashioning a dangerous trick to convince Penelope (Cheyenne Scott) to go to the prom with him. Other characters profess love to ones who don’t care.  But again, because playwright, Gillian Clark does not seem interested in created a cohesive story around these characters, it’s hard to hang on to or care about any of them, aside from the fact that the actors playing them are so committed.

Lots of business is done around the burning fire pit to the extent that the audience is forced to breathe smoke for about a half an hour. I think this bit of business should be rethought as soon as possible.

When characters as teens exit, they then rush to the Studio Theatre, change costumes and perform The Outhouse of Atreus as the teens’ adult parents for the audience watching that play indoors. We are told that sometimes a character might be late in entering a scene, at which point the actor on stage will start to quietly count, with the audience joining in, until the character arrives. There is no making up dialogue wondering where the character is. We just wait and count. Interesting.

For The Outhouse of Atreus section of the play, again Anahita Dehbonehie has decorated the set (the Duck ‘n’ Swing Bar) in a toilet paper motif. There are artful formations of rolls of toilet paper attached to a wall with streams of toilet paper floating down in a beautiful design. Streams of paper hang from the fixtures. There is a large brown structure to one end of the stage. This is a moveable outhouse. At various times characters go in to meditate, ponder their lives, or relieve themselves.

In this play, Sébastien Heins is a confident, stylish King Memnon. He’s married to Penthesilea, a wonderfully sophisticated Liz Der. But King Memnon still has feelings for Nestra (Katherine Cullen) from another time who just appears.

Comment. One smiles at Gillian Clark’s obvious wink at the titles of the Greek plays: The Trojan Women by Euripidesand The House of Atreus by Aeschylus. But that’s all it is, is a wink, because her two iterations have nothing really to do with the original. She makes that point clear when she says not to expect a perfect adaptation. And while Trojan Girls depicts the characters as teens and the Outhouse of Atreus depicts their adult parents, they aren’t the parents in the actual Greek stories. Confusion abounds if one is familiar with the Greek stories, and even if one is not.  

It’s wishful thinking this epic is “ an exploration of inheritance in the age of Climate Emergency” as noted on the theatre website.  Gillian Clark has not crafted a story or characters detailed or cohesive enough to establish either a story of inheritance or anything approaching one about our climate emergency.

While Mitchell Cushman’s directorial imagination is prodigious in this production, I found at times that both parts of the production are flabby, especially The Outhouse of Atreus and could use some tightening. I can appreciate the boldness of having an actor and audience count until a delayed character makes an entrance from the other space, but in one scene in The Outhouse of Atreus a character was waiting for his partner to show up to sing a song for the celebrations of “The Duck ‘n’ Swing Dance and never showed up (deliberately) in spite of repeated calls out to the person. Confusing. Also in the same play, towards the end, the audience from the Courtyard is led into the Studio Theatre to see the conclusion. Three characters rush off stage into a fire to try and rescue one of their own. King Memnon (Sébastien Heins, now dashing in a flashy yellow costume) began quietly counting, as does the audience, waiting for the characters to reappear, which they do, coughing from the fire. Why? The characters are already in the Studio Theatre space doing one play (not the other play simultaneously in the Courtyard) so why are we counting? Is this a directorial conceit to engage the audience? How about rehearsing the changeover so there is no delay? As I said, ‘flabby.’ At three hours and 15 minutes, the play and the production should be judiciously? Ruthlessly edited. And rethought for cohesion.

Presented by Outside the March and Factory Theatre in association with Neworld Theatre.

Plays until: Aug. 28, 2022.

Running time: 3 hours, 15 minutes, (1 intermission)

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