The Toronto Theatre Review: Factory Theatre’s Trojan Girls & The Outhouse of Atreus
A phone call in the lobby, after some introductions, gets the big ballroom and bonfire going. Both inside and out. It’s a lot of information, thrown up and out into the air at the Factory Theatre in downtown Toronto. And then we are separated; half blue, half red, lead off into our assigned wildernesses to bear witness to this wild and wonderful dual production(s) that plays inventively with its own version of Greek tragedy and the retelling of the story of “Grease” that adds layers and layers of festive dark fun into the real and proverbial fire that will slowly injest the world as we know it. “Tell me about it, stud,” we all say. Maybe to Gillian Clark (The Ruins), the playwright responsible for the epic adventure that is Trojan Girls & The Outhouse of Atreus, where she dutifully states in her notes: “If you were expecting a perfect Ancient Greek or Grease adaptation…this is not.”
And that, I tell you, says everything you need to know about this fantastical flight into the stars, and then some. It’s a pretty difficult task to explain (or understand completely), even with the actors giving you the heads up. Yet, this two-part/two-play simultaneous immersive production flies forth with confidence and skill, almost defying description. It transcends both time and the indoor/outdoor spaces where this two-party play melts together Greek mythology and modern vernacular with aplomb. Unfolding inside and out, at the same time, with the same cast in multiple connective parts, this epically exciting exploration of personal and global inheritance, citing the impending climate change emergency hanging dangerously over our worlds, jumps as high as Evil Knievel over our heads, forcing us all to grapple with deep seaded themes of parent/child attachment and personal tragedy, stitched inside love, lust, Greek tragedy, and immortal demands.
This is New Troy, Canada, August 2009, and the night of the epic annual Duck n’ Swing dance held inside amidst toilet paper trees. A cast of characters, such as teenage Odysseus, who is hatching a death-defying leap, Evil Knievel-style to gain a yes to a “Prom-posal”, runs and swings its way forward just outside. Inside, Nestra and King Memnon make plans for a quickie out in the Outhouse, while outside, around a fire, Cassandra makes herself sick on raw hot dogs while prophesizing the world’s destruction that seems more like the ending of a movie musical. And that’s just a wee Calgarian slice of the hotdog game that we are about to witness.
The construct is both wacky and wondrous, directed with complicated division by Outside the March‘s Co-Artistic Director, Mitchell Cushman (Coal Mine Theatre’s Hand to God). This is not your typical Greek God affair or gathering, but a splitting of the worlds into a two-piece puzzle, courtesy of some festively fun work by set designer Anahita Dehbonehie (Coal Mine Theatre’s The Aliens); with a whole heap of quick change courage from costume designer Nick Blais (Coal Mine Theatre’s Marjorie Prime) and a strong temperament from lighting designer Jareth Li (Shakespeare in the Ruff’s The Winter’s Tale). The energy required is intense, with dashing between the two plays one of its many obstacles. Outside, Trojan Girls (the play that I saw first) draws the kids around a fire to fight and reframe, while the adults, 18 and up, gather inside for a coming-of-age party that ends up centering itself around generational trauma outback in The Outhouse of Atreus. It will all make sense, or at least close to making sense, by the time it all wraps itself up after three plus hours of madness and delight. I assure you. One thing it won’t do is leave you bored or uninspired.
The kids of Trojan Girls and the adults of The Outhouse… are all played by the very valiant and energized crew that is: Katherine Cullen (Outside the March’s Stupidhead!) as Helen/Nestra; Liz Der (fu-GEN’s Fearless) as Hecuba/Penthesilea/Artemis; Sébastien Heins (Factory Theatre’s Bang Bang) as Menelaus/King Memnon; Amy Keating (Crow’s/Outside the March’s The Flick) as Cassandra/Ned/Artemis; Elena Reyes (Grand Theatre’s Home for The Holidays) as Andromache/Elektra; Cheyenne Scott (Citadel/Tarragon’s The Herd) as Penelope; Merline Simard (CBC’s “This Life“) as Thalthybius/Hermes; and Jeff Yung (Factory Theatre’s Banana Boys) as Odysseus/Orestes.
The pairing of parts is both fantastical and somewhat complicated, gifting most of the actors a chance to play both the parent and their character’s child, with very little overlap. It’s an attachment theorist’s dream, unpacking a psychological passing down with a rebellious desire for understanding and connection, all within one actor’s process and performance. It mostly works its complex magic well as we unpack their characters’ internal dynamics and their attachment formulations with glee, ever expanding our ideas around how parents hand down trauma to their children. Bravo to those brave cast members who fly fast and furious against a possible counting up (rather than a countdown) to make their entrances intact and on time. It truly is remarkable, and exhausting to think about.
But first off, on a mountain under a moon and a few stars, the kids come together, forever arguing in their attempt to become adults in the eyes of one another. Each of them trying with all their heart to process the responsibility of the surroundings while squirting sunblock nervously into the sky. With all of us wearing headphones to draw us in, courtesy of sound designer Heidi Chan (Company of Fool’s The Tempest) helped along by audio system designer Michael Laird (Mirvish’s Piaf/Dietrich), the childish plots of love and lust play out crushingly against the backdrop of the old house where Factory Theatre calls its home. It’s well-played by all, even when over the top, and although I was completely entertained, reassuring myself that this will all make sense once the two pieces are pushed together, I was a bit overwhelmed with all that structure and abstract Greek meaning. For a better insight, I should have read up on Trojan Women before wandering into the backyard.
Cullen’s seductive teenaged Helen strikes a strong pose, unpacking an engaging presence when playing with Heins’ awe-struck Menelaus. Reyes’ Andromache (and with their strong performance as mother Electra) jumps out with intensity and fun, delivering a bad little bunny girl speech that captivates and surprises. Keating’s Cassandra and especially Der’s Hecuba deliver a strong sisterly bond that registers, forging an understanding of their alignment that resonates most tellingly when the tragedy of their shared drowning story of their mother, Artemis, sister of Der’s Penthesilea is played out in a bathtub under the stars. Cassandra believes she is a soothsayer and tells a story of the future that resembles a certain musical film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John (R.I.P. Sandy, I just heard the sad news today). It’s a hilariously adept translation, reminiscent of Euripides’ Cassandra who could also see the future, and was equally cursed by those around her for those very visions. Even when the forward consumption of poprocks and weiners are so lovingly halted by a united counting brought on by a slow entering scene-stealer, the show, and the exploration never loses us in its messiness. We are there, attached and entwined in their story, until the bitter end.
The parallels between Euripides and Clark live tight and entangled, thanks to the work of dramaturg Jeff Ho (cockroach), particularly once we are ushered inside after intermission to attend the 18-and-over Duck n’ Swing dance where the handsome and compelling Heins’ King Memnon reigns strong as Swing King. It all feels wild and breezy, especially when the cast stands up at that microphone and pulls the flammable insanity and celebration all together with some emotional truth. We can’t help but to begin to see the parallel processes of mother/daughter, father/son, and in one instant, father/daughter. The cast excells in this room, unpacking layers of engagement unseen before the inside play gets its act going. Yung, in particular, brings a true edge to his Orestes, giving insight to the man and to his son, Odysseus, who we just saw outside desperately leaping over fire for love. It’s all done for Scott’s Penelope, a complex character who is the only one who gets to cross over the threshold of 18, from outside to in, with an invitation and new role at the raffle table. But a different test gets in the way of that celebration.
It’s one of the tentpoles of this two or three ring circus, that runs and swings itself around The Outhouse of Atreus that literally sits so beautifully off in the distance. Scott is also the one and only actor who gets to hold tight to one character throughout. She steps into the Trojan Girls backyard, playing the kid who gets to be an adult, while also playing the young woman who is invited to enter the adult’s ball. She is the one who is transcending from kid to adult. But it is also her undoing, thanks ever so to a God that only briefly makes a guided and hooded entrance and car-exit. This is the generational act of immortal lust that sets the tragedy spirling out to the Outhouse. And what happens after is all thanks to a few gifted items; cigarettes, a flask, and a lighter, along with the pushy guidance of Simard’s immortal Hermes, who has a few lessons to learn as well. Simard’s delivery of Hermes (and to a much lesser degree, their Thalthybius) is a bit overly aggressive, but the realm and the construct are equal to the task at hand. “The little birds must deal with my mess,” we are told, but that idea is questioned, then shed, much like Hermes’s skirt, when the tragedy is set ablaze, and the campfire gang, along with everyone else, comes running into their parents’ domain hoping for some salvation from the flames. And for a conclusion that hopefully will wrap this all up.
It is there, in that unraveling, that the two-part puzzle finally attempts to fit itself all together. It’s a huge undertaking; this separation and reattachment, as the energy that is required for the transition are heightened to almost a fiery level against the backdrop of Greek tragedy. I’m not sure I fully understood the ultimate construction put forth by playwright Clark, but the love connections of both the parent/child and the characters themselves are all delivered with surprising grace and connection. We feel for these lost and desperate souls, as each and every one of them tries to solve the problems set forth by the Gods and by the world that they live in, even if it might be in the town of Troy, or even Calgary.
They stand together, lamenting the loss of the land that reared them, much like Euripides’ Trojan Women did back in the day and for us to address today, as we watch climate change affect this planet that we call home. Much like the immortals liked to do and inflict on us humans in all of those Greek tales of tragedy. We take in the pleasure that is Clark’s Trojan Girls & The Outhouse of Atreus, and find joy, acknowledgement, and engagement in the energy formed. Now give me one of those tasty hot dogs, and let me sit by the fire trying my best to fully take it all in and understand all that I just witnessed, thanking the God(s) of Theatre for that smile on my face and a much-needed drink in my hand. Factory Theatre, along with Outside the March and Neworld Theatre, you did those Gods proud. Because this was quite the undertaking, that would leave many an artist our of breath and weak in the knees.