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‘The Trojan Women’ at Yale Summer Cabaret laments Syrian war

“The Trojan Women,” a tragedy by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides, depicts the plight of the wives and daughters of Troy, who await their fates after the Greek army has destroyed their city and slaughtered their men.

An all-female production of playwright Ellen McLaughlin’s adaptation of the classical play, which opened June 23 at the Yale Summer Cabaret, brings Euripides’ lamentation of war into the present day. The refugees of Troy become refugees of Aleppo, the Syrian city besieged and decimated during years of brutal civil war.

Shadi Ghaheri, the play’s director, said that while the politics of ancient Troy differ from the politics of modern Syria, the same cruelty and injustice portrayed in Euripides is borne by the hundreds of thousands of women and children who have been killed, maimed, or displaced during the ongoing Syrian war.

“The human struggle and the pain is the same,” said Ghaheri, a rising third-year M.F.A. candidate in directing at the Yale School of Drama and co-artistic director of the Summer Cabaret.

Ghaheri met McLaughlin, who adapted the play in 1995 as a response to the bloodshed and atrocities of the Bosnian War, when the playwright was a guest lecturer at the School of Drama last year.

“When I read her adaptation, I found it shocking how almost 2,500 years after Euripides wrote the original, women and children continue to suffer horribly in the aftermath of war,” she said. “I felt it was time to tell the story again and show that the effects of war continue long after the bombs stop falling.”

Ariel Sibert, the production’s dramaturg, collaborated with Ghaheri to put the adaptation into a present-day context. (A 1995 production of the play featured performances by refugees from all sides of the Bosnian conflict.)

“The Troy of our contemporary moment is Aleppo,” said Sibert, a rising third-year student of dramaturgy and dramatic criticism. “Aleppo was a beautiful ancient city, like Troy. We think of our version of this play as a love letter to Aleppo — to the city it was more than the ruin it is now known to be.”

The set evokes a bombed-out apartment block. A sofa rests at a steep angle in the gray rubble. The cast members wear costumes reminiscent of the Middle East.

Ghaheri and Sibert said the play raises important questions about the nature of morality and justice in the wake of conflict.

“The meaning of what is good or moral can totally change during war,” Ghaheri said. “What is the right thing to do? What is justice? How are people supposed to live?”

The work also shows how war strips people of their humanity and the way that some lives are valued more than others, they said.

In preparing for the production, they studied “Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?,” a book in which author Judith Butler addresses the notion of “grievability”— the question of whose life gets assigned value; of whose death is worth grieving or not.

“If you die in a terrorist attack in London or Paris, your name and face winds up in the newspaper,” Sibert said. “If you die in a bombing in Aleppo, most of the time, you’re just a number.”

The play wrestles with this concept, Sibert said.

Its main characters — Hecuba, Helen, Cassandra, and Andromache — had, before the war, enjoyed lavish lifestyles in a society that valued them, she said.  

“This play, viewed through that lens, is about the morning you wake up and discover that your life is no longer ‘grievable’ and you will die un-mourned, for your life is no longer assigned value,” she said. “So many Syrian refugees were middle-class and upper-middle-class people. They literally woke up one day and their lives were no longer assigned value.”

“The Trojan Women” runs through July 2. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the Yale Summer Cabaret’s website.

The Yale Summer Cabaret’s season features performances of adapted classics, amplifying the voices of female artists, queer artists, and artists of color. Its next production is “Mies Julie,” Yaël Farber’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” set in post-Apartheid South Africa. It will run July 14-23 under the direction of Rory Pelsue, the Summer Cabaret’s co-artistic director.  The season concludes with “Lear,” Young Jean Lee’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” set in contemporary times.  It will run Aug. 4-13, directed by Ghaheri.

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