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STAGE REVIEW

In war zone, ideas at play

'Trojan Barbie' is a confusing collection

Paula Langton (left, as Hecuba) and Karen MacDonald (as Lotte) star in the ART's production of ''Trojan Barbie.'' Paula Langton (left, as Hecuba) and Karen MacDonald (as Lotte) star in the ART's production of ''Trojan Barbie.'' (photos by michael lutch)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / April 4, 2009
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CAMBRIDGE - Christine Evans packs a lot into her new play, "Trojan Barbie": ancient Greek drama, modern malaise, sex and death, beauty and power, grief and rage. And, of course, she's got one of the season's best titles. War and dolls: What else do you need to know?

But the play, which is receiving its world premiere in an American Repertory Theatre production at Zero Arrow Theatre, doesn't yet feel fully settled into its final shape. Director Carmel O'Reilly crafts many striking images out of its episodic script, and some scenes have genuine, if mysterious, power. But there's a difference between dwelling in ambiguity and confusing the audience, and too often "Trojan Barbie" is on the wrong side of that line.

The play starts with Lotte, a shy and somewhat reclusive British woman who spends her days repairing dolls. She books a long-delayed vacation with a singles tour, rejecting "Romance in Rome" and "Catalan Cuisine" for the more ominously titled "Tragedy in Troy."

Lotte finds tragedy, all right, or maybe it finds her. For somehow this meek little creature collides with the weeping widows and doomed virgins of Euripides' "Trojan Women": Hecuba, Cassandra, Andromache, and the rest. Helen of Troy is here, too, and so is Hecuba's young daughter Polyxena, barely mentioned in Euripides and here reimagined as a punky, spunky schoolgirl, Polly X.

Polly gives the play its overarching symbol with a description of the sculpture she wants to create: a collage of mangled Barbie parts, something that would rival the art made of ruins and scraps that she's seen in her city's museum. She also gives "Trojan Barbie" much of its energy and focus. Particularly as played by ART Institute student Kaaron Briscoe, Polly's a pistol: a sharp, sassy, funny girl who's both innocent and tough. When a conquering soldier (for reasons that are achingly clear to us but not to her) asks if she's still a virgin, she doesn't simper or blush; she hurls an expletive instead.

Paula Langton's Hecuba, too, is a majestic, imposingly sorrowful presence. Her losses are the losses of all women - all families - in war, and Euripides-via-Evans allows her laments to hold the echoes of all the laments like them down through history. Like David Reynoso's concrete, rubble-strewn set, this Hecuba evokes images both ancient and modern; with her we are simultaneously in Troy and in some weird, perhaps futuristic or perhaps contemporary detention camp of Evans's imagining - and our nightly news.

All this is rich stuff, given further shadings by the other women around Hecuba (all of them, except Karen MacDonald's Lotte, also played by Institute students, as are the less fully drawn soldiers): crazed, craving Cassandra (Nina Kassa); solemn, devastated Andromache (Skye Noel); and, in a sparklingly flirtatious turn by Careena Melia, Helen of Troy. "Just Helen," she says coyly to Lotte when they meet.

Ah, yes, Lotte. MacDonald efficiently creates a character in a few strokes, as usual; in this case it's a lonely, nervous, insistently ordinary woman who finds herself thrust into strange circumstances. She's baffled; she demands to speak to the British Embassy; she insists on her rights as a citizen and as a tourist. As written, in short, Lotte is perilously close to caricature - the Homebody of Tony Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul" without the mystical desire to transcend her cliches.

She's also never quite sure where she is - and, more troublingly, we're never quite sure why she's here. The confusion over whether Hecuba and the others are in ancient Troy, in a modern detention camp, or in some imagined world that's both at once, is occasionally frustrating but still a fruitful means of stimulating thought. The equally confusing relationship between Lotte and the others, though, is merely frustrating.

Lotte's presence in the camp feels less like an organic part of the play and more like a metaphor-laden device. It also distracts us from some of the real strengths of the play: a few lyrical, painful speeches, like Euripides made modern but still carrying a whiff of ancient grief; an almost unbearably tense scene between Polly and two soldiers; the intriguing, but insufficiently worked-out, use of dolls to represent the victims of war.

O'Reilly's direction makes the most of all these and adds many strong notes of its own: crisp scene changes, delicate shifts from tragedy to humor, and adroit adjustments of focus, all supported by Justin Townsend's dramatic lighting, David Remedios's eerie sound design, and Reynoso's elegantly ancient/modern costumes, along with his artfully crumbling set. At the end of its 100 minutes, however, "Trojan Barbie" leaves us challenged, curious, and just a little too confused.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

TROJAN BARBIE Play by Christine Evans

Directed by: Carmel O'Reilly. Set and costumes, David Reynoso. Lights, Justin Townsend. Sound, David Remedios. Presented by: American Repertory Theatre, in association with the ART Institute for Advanced Theatre Training.

At: Zero Arrow Theatre, Cambridge, through April 22. Tickets, $25-52, 617-547-8300, www.amrep.org