The idea of politicizing the classics is not new. It has seduced directors over the years with varying degrees of success. Shakespeare and the Greeks are particularly prone to such modern transpositions. And if we can have Macbeth as Idi Amin (as in Jack Manning's 1976 invention), why not a vision of Euripides' "Hecuba" as an emblem of the Palestinian struggle in the Middle East?
The point in any conceptualization is to make it work, and director Lamis Khalaf almost does. It has taken editing, some pointed shaping and the addition of two silent characters as the almighty "Gods" (Jillian Hessel as the U.S.S.R., Greg Gonzalez as the U.S.A., hovering silently in a nefarious push-me, pull-me dance of death).
Khalaf's production (at the Powerhouse) of this tragedy of the once-Queen of Troy whose grown children fall victim to other people's imperatives is a well-thought-out parallel for the current Middle East strife.
The militant (but not entirely insensitive) Greeks are the Israelis, the treacherous Thracians are one of the many Lebanese factions and the dispossessed Trojans are the Palestinians.
Khalaf (herself of Palestinian and Syrian descent) deals evenly with all parties but, following the dictates of the script, takes up the Palestinian cause. Her political views, however, serve an artistic end rather than being an end in themselves. The Trojan queen is a symbol of the dispossessed anywhere, crushed by warring defenders of territory, while, locked in their own struggle, the silent and unblinking superpowers look on.
As an invention, this "Hecuba" cooks; as an acting assignment, it remains underdone. The director's ideas far exceed the company's ability to execute them. Actors vacillate between being moderately professional (Susan Nazami's Hecuba and Jana Howard's Polyxena) and faintly collegiate.
With the exception of Ryan Sexton (moving and assertive as the ghost of the murdered Polydorus), the men are especially weak. This flaw is magnified by the fact that all are supposed to be powerful military leaders: Odysseus (Fareed Al-Oboudi), Talthybius (Niche Saboda), Agamemnon (Christopher Carlson) and the traitor Polymestor (Steve Welles--all bluster, no substance).
In contrast, Dan Cleverdon and Ed Garcia as mute guards, symbolic of the menace and interchangeability of all armies, come off particularly strong in carefully choreographed movement (presumably prescribed by the director and/or choreographer Miguel Delgado).
The chorus of Trojan women fares a lot less well, playing everything by the numbers rather than by inspiration. It's a situation that scuttles director Khalaf's better ideas, including what might best be described as a sort of signature in local color: the ritual ululating of the mourning women; the traditional preparation of food (stirring the pot, crushing the condiment, kneading the unleavened bread); the solo and collective delivery of plaintive chants as punctuation to the dialogue and action.
In fact, the strongest contribution to this "Hecuba" (aside from Khalaf's abstractions and sure sense of theater as larger than life) is Michael Eagan's minor-key original score. It is performed live by Eagan (with Gene Sterling and Jim Knight) on synthesizers and percussive instruments that prominently include the Middle Eastern oud and saz and go a long way toward setting mood.
Betty Berberian's costumes appear close to authentic when they need to be, inexpensively inventive the rest of the time. If the production betrays signs of a tiny budget, it demonstrates a large imagination that makes the most of its limitations. Wisely, Khalaf has chosen to use the Powerhouse space longitudinally, which opens it up considerably and has a much-needed liberating effect on the highly stylized movement.
As conceptually engrossing as this all is, anyone seeking the satisfaction of a polished production won't find it here.
The intimacy of the theater and the rawness of the execution undermine the director's best efforts. But there is plenty of evidence of an original mind at work, nowhere more so than in the play's striking closing image: all of the participants in this internecine tapestry of political mischief-making helplessly strung out on a twisting cordon of shroud the color of fresh blood. It's a visual assault that leaves you at least willing to see more.
Euripides' tragedy, presented at the Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica, by Manara Productions. Director Lamis Khalaf. Original music Michael Eagan. Choreography Miguel Delgado. Setting Melody Boyd. Lighting Terri Genz. Costumes Betty Berberian. Graphics Aida Khalaf. Stage manager J. F. Garay. Musicians Michael Eagan, Gene Sterling, Jim Knight. Cast Jillian Hessel, Greg Gonzalez, Ryan Sexton, Susan Nazami, Dion Carmel, Lisa Cooperman, Heather Anne Lockwood, Regina Mocey, Rosalia Stamatakos, Jessica Zaccaro, Jana Howard, Dean Cleverdon, Ed Garcia, Fareed Al-Oboudi, Niche Saboda, Christopher Carlson, Steve Welles, David Miles Dalton, Diana Gonzalez. All tickets $10. Performances run Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays 5 and 9 p.m., until Feb. 1, (213) 392-6529.