Carrianne Brobst came to her own moment of understanding about "Trojan Barbie" early in rehearsals.
The moment occurred during a scene where Brobst's character, the endearing but hopelessly naive Lotte, is kidnapped with a gag in her mouth and a hood over her head. The text calls for Lotte to scream as the scene closes.
"The first time they put that hood on," Brobst said, "I had a moment of panic. My scream just turned to sobs."
Such is the power of Christine Evans' award-winning war drama that opens today at Gustavus Adolphus College.
Using Greek playwright Euripides' "The Trojan Women" as a historical reference point, Evans loosely adapts her work from the classical tragedy that recounted the effects of the Trojan War on the women left behind.
Evans' play, however, revolves around Lotte, a British doll-mender who has joined a singles tour of Troy, unwittingly plunging herself into an impossible time warp where her existence is parallel to that of Troy's classical heroines. Interspersed with scenes of Lotte reminding herself to order repair parts for her dolls and nattering to herself about packing her bags are scenes of the unrelenting grief suffered by her war-ravaged predecessors.
With a certain magic realism, Evans blurs the distinctions between time and place as Lotte interacts with the refugees and concubines that populate her tour itinerary. When she's plucked from her tour group and into captivity, Lotte — who symbolizes the Western nescience of the costs of war — finds herself hopelessly unable to protect her fellow captives.
Throughout the play, Evans creates and director Amy Seham maintains a taut correspondence between emotional and chronological contrasts.
"This play does veer back and forth," said the Gustavus theatre instructor. "But it knows it's doing that."
As Lotte waxes coquettishly about her gentlemanly suitor, Cassandra (the Greek woman cursed by Apollo with insanity) delivers violently sexual prophecies. In the midst of her tour, Lotte yearns for a cold lemonade in "one of those cute Turkish cafes"; meanwhile, Hecuba searches desert sands for the remains of her children.
Coursing throughout the play are similar intersections of levity and morbidity.
The soldiers sentencing women into slavery and ordering the murders of suckling babes are depicted as sometimes bumbling and stumbling, but ever obedient to their tyrannical masters. The character of Helen (the Greek woman of mythology whose beauty caused the Trojan War) seduces the guards for Advil, admonishes fellow captives for not bartering their sexual wares and mocks suffering as demonstrative show — even as her chorus is forced into submission.
To underscore her work with a sense of contemporary gravitas, Evans blurs the distinctions between past and present — Helen making a cell phone call, Lotte's conversations with refugees — and concludes the play by linking Lotte and Hecuba in the final scene.
The sum total of such an improbable window into the unseen consequences of war is a narrative that succeeds in leveraging the tragedies of antiquity for modern understanding.
"At the end of the play, Lotte says the line: "They never asked about the women,'" said Comfort Dolo, the Gustavus senior who plays Hecuba, referencing Lotte's aside to the audience after recounting the media exposure she received following her refugee experience. "This play gets at that idea."
Deb Witherspoon said she sought out the role of Cassandra specifically because of the character's strong personality. As Cassandra foretells her own demise — proclaiming that bombs and machine guns are gestating in her belly — she remains steadfast in her defiance of the cruel sexual politics that govern women in times of war.
Witherspoon said she hopes her character can help deliver the modern relevance of Evans' text.
"I hope the audience can see past (Cassandra's) facade of crazy and really connect with her character," said the first-year Gustavus student. "In a world that can be so turbulent, it can be hard to keep our eyes on domestic issues. I hope people can use what they see in my character to empower women in their own lives."
If You Go What "Trojan Barbie" Performances 8 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Also, 2 p.m. on Sunday. Where Anderson Theatre on the Gustavus campus Tickets $9 (adults) and $6 (seniors and GAC students); available online at www.gustavustickets.com, or by calling the Gustavus Ticket Center at 507-933-7590. Tickets not purchased in advance may be purchased at the Anderson Theatre Box Office beginning one hour prior to curtain.