Euripides Goes to the Circus

January 31, 2006
Tragedy in Troy: Cassandra (Molly Fulweiler) confronts Talthybius (Martin Zimmerman)

Tragedy in Troy: Cassandra (Molly Fulweiler) confronts Talthybius (Martin Zimmerman)Photos: Les Todd

Director Ellen Hemphill, faculty member in the department of theater studies, didn't trot out the Trojan horse to tell the ancient, yet eerily modern, story of the Trojan War in the recent student production of The Trojan Women. Instead, she set the play in a burned-out circus.

"I chose to take 'noble' women and put them in demeaning situations--in circus acts, in circus costumes--to show more clearly how their treatment as the spoils of war 'feels' rather than just telling the audience what happened to the characters," says Hemphill. "Unfortunately, the world has not really changed since Euripides wrote this play well over 2,000 years ago. War is still used as an answer, and one that rarely works."

Known for her innovative use of voice, movement, and music to bring her audience close to the emotional core of a production, Hemphill succeeded in the eyes of the critics. One local newspaper wrote, "The students are brave and captivating in their emotionally demanding roles. This is not typical college theater. And it is not to be missed."

Hemphill adapted the play from a new translation by Alan Shapiro, William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of English and creative writing at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, in collaboration with Duke's own Peter Burian, chair of classical studies and professor of comparative literatures and theater studies.

"The overwhelming sorrows of the women of Troy, the brutalization of the world that follows Troy's fall, will still, if given a chance, tell us something we need to know about ourselves and the world we inhabit," says Burian. "The Trojan Women is not a piece written about our current situation, but to discover that it speaks so directly to what many of us feel now, speaks of its power."

Poseiden as ringmaster (Edward Wardle)
the chorus (Erica Bossen, left, Juliet Summers, and Jacqueline Langheim) listens as Hecuba (Maggie Chambers) sings a lament

Tragedy in Troy: Poseiden as ringmaster (Edward Wardle), top ; the chorus (Erica Bossen, left, Juliet Summers, and Jacqueline Langheim) listens as Hecuba (Maggie Chambers) sings a lament, bottom