A production of Sophocles’s rarely produced The Women of Trachis was to be the culmination of a year’s exploration of tragedy at Swarthmore College, led by guest director Michał Zadara and Swarthmore professor Allen Kuharski. Zadara is a noted Polish director whose work has been seen in Philadelphia (Operetta in the 2009 Fringe Festival; the superb Chopin Without Piano in 2015). The Women of Trachis, about the death of Heracles, was also intended to be the Honors project for two of the students involved, actor Alex Kingsley and dramaturg Ziv Stern.
In the first semester, the class studied a range of Greek dramas and selected Trachis for production. In a reversal of original practice, Zadara selected an all-woman cast, with Kingsley playing both Deianeira and her husband Heracles in addition to being part of the chorus. (This doubling reflects most scholars’ view of the original casting; it’s possible that both roles were performed by Sophocles himself.) Dramaturg Stern is also a student of Classical Greek and worked with Zadara and the cast to create an original translation in contemporary American English.
“Before the break,” Stern wrote me, “we were just in the process of making the show feel unified, and then in the new medium we had to let go of a lot of thematic material and 95 percent of the text.”
Like so much else, Swarthmore was shut down in March by the novel coronavirus, and the stage production of Women of Trachis went with it. However, in April, a press packet announced a live performance on April 24, with the following warnings:
NO ONE WILL BE ADMITTED
NO ONE WILL BE ONSTAGE
DON’T CALL FOR RESERVATIONS
Not an ersatz theater
“Tragedy is usually about revealing an aspect of reality that was hidden before,” Zadara told me after the event. “Theater is the medium that prides itself on exposing this truth, on showing what people don't want to know. But this ‘making visible of the invisible’ did not happen this spring. So instead of creating an ersatz theater, a make-believe theater on Zoom, I wanted to create a real, live event which would not be able to communicate that or any truth.” The result was a “theater without witnesses."
The production had planned to include extensive video, projections, and other multimedia from the start. When lockdown began, the cast was widespread—one actor, Nadia Malaya, was in Russia. Online conversations continued between Zadara, the students, and Kuharski. Zadara worked alone in the college’s Lang Performing Arts Center (LPAC) on a set designed by Matt Saunders, assembling material the actors generated remotely.
Vision over performance
The change in plans meant a major shift in how the student artists approached their work, an effort Kingsley described as “no longer one of rehearsing but one of content creation.” Malaya, who played the son Hyllus and Messenger in addition to her choral role, said, “My performer-presence became secondary to my artistic vision. I turned to a lot more visual art and film for inspiration.” Visual composition became more central than physical performance. The result, in Kingsley’s words, was “a series of visual poems that no one can see.”
Stage manager Sophie Nasrallah’s function changed even more. “I went from thinking that I might lose my role” to becoming “a historian that created Google Drive folders for our videos and audio," she said. "As I am also a student of video design, I became a mentor to the members of the cast who had never created videos before, sending them emails with tips on the basics of lighting, sound, and film editing.”
The reality of absence
On April 24, the performance took place. (A link to the performance was shared with me by the company in early May.) Zadara pushed a button and a version of Sophocles’ story unfolded across multiple scenes in the LPAC theater. The only audience was the cast and crew, linking in remotely—and a handmade doll created by Kingsley, named “Doll-aneira” by the cast and placed in one of the chairs at Zadara’s suggestion.
In the “performance” Zadara is heard telling Stern, “What we’re staging is everything but the text,” which feels accurate. It is a strange, sometimes eerie, surrealist collage, in which the sense of “absence as the social reality of this time” is embodied by the blank, uncanny gaze of Doll-aneira in her seat. Trying to describe this production, I feel as if I have become a character in a sublayer of a Borges fiction, memorializing something that did and did not occur.
I have spent a lot time since March consuming streamed productions from the US and Europe. This has included several created during lockdown, including other college productions. These have used Zoom and attempted to create something vaguely analogous to what the staged version would have been, as if everyday life hadn’t been radically changed. In effect, they attempt to deny the reality of our moment. Even when the student actors, from their separate Zoom cells, have choreography, they feel like tools for the technology.
In the Women of Trachis program booklet, Stern writes, “‘Tragedy’ is art that fights against denial. It challenges us to live in constant awareness of the things we think we cannot bear to face.” The Swarthmore student actors (and stage manager Nasrallah) used the technology to their purposes instead: both the “visual poems” they created and the contemporary paraphrases of Sophocles that they speak reveal a deep investigation and engagement with both this 2,500-year-old text and the strange reality that 2020 has become.
What, When, Where
The Women of Trachis. By Sophocles, adapted by director Michał Zadara and Allen Kuharski. April 24, 2020, at Lang Performing Arts Center of Swarthmore College, 500 College Ave., Swarthmore, PA. (610) 328-8149 or swarthmore.edu/department-theater.