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In this carnival

Ancient play still resonates

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Though Jan Chamber's post-apocalyptic circus set for Duke Theater Studies' The Trojan Women is an achievement in recycled rubber, rent canvas, snapped timbers and ash, I'm reasonably certain director Ellen Hemphill didn't intend for me to see the set of syndicated dish/rag shows like Access Hollywood, Extra or E! superimposed upon its upper chamber.

No matter. It's hardly an inhospitable reading, given the air of smarmy self-importance Edward Charles Wardle and Bridget Bailey bring to Poseidon and Athena, the Greek deities who are poised there. Our erstwhile hosts anchor, more than narrate, the proceedings of this frequently magical misery tour from the relative glitz of a flight deck adjacent to the wretchedness below. They are accompanied there by an eerie, life-sized--and tellingly hollow--triptych: the forms of Aphrodite, Zeus and Hera, the other celestial parties to the bloodletting beneath, tricked out in what might be termed Orientalist drag.

Ladies and gentlemen: the beautiful people.

As a group they do seem nearly as devoted to wars and suffering (by proxy only, of course) as they are to their own cults of personality. Through the play, the two scrutinize the up-and-downticks of their celebrity--how their name inspires worship in the world, or fear--with the same cold eyes a stock analyst uses to look for signs of an oncoming bear market.

But such concerns come too late, we sense, both for Hemphill and ourselves. The gods not only assume we are as fascinated with them as they are with themselves, but that we're equally transfixed by Euripides' story.

A viral shabbiness has spiraled upward by the opening of this tale: Any landlord who'd rent a place this squalid gets the reputation they deserve. And through the director's Brechtian legerdemain, our hosts' fixation on this tale of crushing woe itself becomes a subject rich for scrutiny and analysis.

Composer Allison Leyton-Brown's unhinged carny theme and Stephen Tomac's lyrics provide a devastating frame in the song "Once Was" which opens this work, as the flashlighted quartet of Hecuba (Maggie Chambers), Andromache (Madeleine Lambert), Cassandra (Molly Fulweiler) and Helen (Grace McCalmon) intones a litany of loss. But later numbers like "Cassandra Dances with Fire" seem overblown, and when "Helen's Trio" seemingly reiterates its preceding 10 minutes of plot without adding new insight, both song and show feel overlong at that point.

Still, the news before then makes this work well worth considering, particularly if it makes us wonder, both then and now, just who's in charge of network programming in the world--and what agenda its lineup suggests.

Designer Sonja Drum's multilevel set suggests a return to the psychologized motif that overpowered an earlier production of Little Eyeolf. Though hellishly tinged at the start, the ironic, blue-sky pattern of the wallpaper in a Victorian dining room cannot conceal considerable mold and water damage at its edges. Like several other plot devices in An Inspector Calls, the creeping decay is something you don't notice--until, that is, it's far too late. The whole affair is placed over a subterreanean system of pipes that look as if they might be getting ready to blow--a passage fit only for the humble servants and the underclass.

This is the environment in which director Kenny Gannon stages his homage to Stephen Daldry's 1992 blockbuster revival of J.B. Priestley's socially conscious drawing-room mystery. For a twice-told tale, the current production at Peace College is a rich retelling indeed.

Credit Gannon's direction of Jordan Smith--again--as Inspector Goole, a force of justice who implacably connects every attendee at an upper-class dinner party with the horrible death of a woman who was a former factory worker. Also note the stiff upper lip of Michael Mattison as the patriarch of the Birling household, and strong supporting work from Stephen LeTrent, Gina Kelly and Sarah Thomas as present and prospective members of the family.

Though we agree with Priestley's politics, ultimately this Inspector shows its age and its ideals, particularly in a sudden, didactic turn at the end. Still, this extended revenge fantasy for the ethically-minded set unmasks the closed-set social calculus of cause and effect. Apparently we still need the lesson that the social contract cannot be infinitely renegotiated without cost to all participants.

Reviews ****Back of the Throat, Manbites Dog Theater--If I could somehow pack all of you onto the distinctly claustrophobic set to see this show, I'd do it. Whenever theater mirrors a desperate injustice in the world this clearly, that world has an obligation to attend and bear witness.

Is Khaled, a young Arab-American--and a naturalized citizen--actually a terrorist collaborator? A terrorist in his own right? A guy who just got hassled one too many times by some pesky old man from the old country? Or just another writer living in post-graduate squalor, stuck on a project and interviewing sources for a book?

The most useful thing playwright Yussef El Guindi's play confirms is that it really doesn't matter. Once Khaled is identified as a person of interest by Homeland Security apparatchiks Bartlett and Carl--two goons whose faint stirrings of conscience don't prevent them from dispassionately administering chokeholds and select contusions--he's forced to prove the negative of a thought crime. When one's research library includes volumes on Islam, revolution and political assassination, that becomes a practical impossibility.

El Guindi deliberately leaves the guilt or innocence of Khaled in the air. Indeed, the work's one major flaw is that it reads like the playwright wrote as far as he could without resolving the question--and then simply stopped. The resulting script reads like a compelling first act, but one in desperate need of a second.

But the playwright reminds us (as does Elaine Scarry) that not only is the invisibility of pain a crucial component that permits torture in the world, the invisibility of innocence plays a fundamental role as well, particularly in the realm of thought, motive and desire.

This unfortunately necessary work outlines how absolute doubt "necessitates" absolute acts--the infliction of pain, physical injury and death on people because we are suspicious of them. It is happening in the world, in our name, and not only in the CIA-run secret prisons for "ghost detainees" revealed recently in The Washington Post. In its absolutely mildest form it looks like this. Come and see. (Through Nov. 19.)

***1/2 Private Lives, Deep Dish Theater--Let me confess: As with other regional theater-goers of a certain vintage, I find I can't hear the line "Solomon Isaacs" from this play without immediately recalling Martin Thompson and Lynda Clark's same-named company of the 1990s, an enterprise that all but patented their glistening takes on Noel Coward.

But director Fred Gorelick clearly opts here against the polished suavity of earlier efforts. Yes, this mannered comedy focuses on the strange dating, mating (and punct-u-ating) habits of the two-legged piranha reportedly endemic to the British upper crust. And as usual, their cheerful amorality and inexcusable contretemps are only pardoned by dazzling demonstrations of wit.

For all that, Mark Filiaci's Elyot remains a fairly tortured soul, acutely aware that devotion (and therefore happiness and love) for him is a chimera, while Dorothy Brown's Amanda similarly seems a hunter, late in the day, all but cornered by her game. In this show the sparkle decidedly is off--so we can see something worthwhile and very human underneath.

Though the supporting roles are variant and occasionally shrill, this work still provides a notable view of Mr. Coward's script--and one that's a bit more frank than the usual. Recommended. (Through Nov. 19.)

E-mail Byron Woods at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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