Greek tragedy poses a particular challenge to any theater company: how to avoid the kind of stylized, museum-piece remoteness that can make modern audiences feel like they’re watching strangely loquacious statuary.
In his Whistler in the Dark Theatre production of Euripides’s “Trojan Women,’’ director Ben Evett tackles that problem by planting the audience — or a good chunk of it, anyway — right onstage, smack-dab in the middle of the action.
With all distance collapsed, reinforcing a sense of shared humanity, you are enveloped in the drama’s atmosphere of escalating dread as the women of Troy await their bleak fates at the hands of the conquering Greeks. The suffering of the women is written on their faces, and those faces are often just a few feet away from yours.
But even without that proximity, even if seen from afar — not that such a thing is really possible in the tiny Factory Theatre — this production would exert a magnetic force.
This “Trojan Women’’ is that rare production of a classic that has not been updated (though the usual “The’’ has been dropped from the title). Working with an admirable new translation by Francis Blessington that is notable for its clarity and its dark eloquence, Evett makes no ham-handed attempt to thrust Euripides into a present-day historical context.
Yet the aura of terrible, brooding desolation conjured by the director and his creative team inescapably puts you in mind of the scorched-earth cataclysms that have been such a constant characteristic of contemporary warfare.
The production may also remind you of Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined,’’ another play about the price women pay when men wage war, or of a chilling prediction that became commonplace during the Cold War: in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange, the living will envy the dead.
As the play begins, a chorus of empty-eyed Trojan women (Jen O’Connor, Adrienne Paquin, and Mara Radulovic) mournfully wander a makeshift camp while Hecuba (Rosalind Thomas Clark), the queen of Troy, lies motionless before a ragged tent. The men of Troy are nowhere to be seen; they have either been killed or have fled. A gold soldier’s helmet is among the scant bits of evidence that the men were ever there.
A steady wind blows, punctuated by a persistent creaking sound that denotes a crumbling city. Surging waves can also be heard, a reminder that the women will soon be carried off on Greek ships, slated for slavery or sexual subjugation or both. An even steeper price will be paid by a little boy, the son of Andromache and the slain Hector (the child was played on opening night by Ben Steinberg, who is alternating in the role with Adam Figler).
Even in the uniformly strong cast of this “Trojan Women,’’ Aimee Rose Ranger (“Fen,’’ “Recent Tragic Events’’) stands out. Ranger persuasively inhabits four very different characters: Athena, the haughty goddess; Cassandra, the half-mad prophetess; Andromache, the grief-torn widow; and the wily Helen.
(It was Helen, of course, who had been carried off from Sparta by Paris, a prince of Troy. That prompted a decade-long siege of the city by Greek forces, culminating in that business with the wooden horse.)
One example of Ranger’s astonishing versatility: First, as Andromache says goodbye forever to her child, the actress transfixes you with her depiction of a mother in a state of utter devastation. Then, mere moments later, Ranger transforms herself into the slinkily seductive Helen.
Her husband, Menelaus, makes a late appearance in “Trojan Women,’’ portrayed by Nathaniel Gundy with a mixture of icy, vengeful fury and a hint of indecisiveness, at least when Helen starts to work her still-potent charms on him. Gundy is equally nuanced as a conscience-stricken Greek messenger, and he also shoulders a third role, as the god Poseidon.
As Hecuba, Clark is a haunting portrait in loss. Her face is a mask of agony, and when she says “My country, children, husband all have perished. The grandness of my ancestors cut short: how you are nothing now,’’ Clark’s voice seems to carry the tragic weight of every word she utters. Yet that voice also rises, as events unfold, to a kind of determined strength.
No words are spoken at the end of this “Trojan Women.’’ The women slowly leave their now-burned city, their movements and faces combining to convey hopelessness and a faint flicker of hope all at once. Like virtually everything else about this fine production, the balance is just right.