In this production of Trojan Women at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), we begin at the end: the women of Troy - temporarily encapsulated from a lost war within an empty palace - undergo the brutal last hours of knowing their own imminent doom. A ghost, the Soul of Souls, wanders amongst the women and sings of happy memories, “fading, like the sound of a flute.” It is at this moment the audience and cast are locked into their transitory connection, for our own memories of a “normal” time have also faded in much the same way these post-pandemic years.
A strong inclusion for BAM’s Next Wave 2022 Festival, this new changgeuk (a traditional Korean opera that features a whole cast of pansori singers) is the result of Singaporean director Keng Sen Ong’s collaboration with the National Changgeuk Company of Korea, signalling a fresh frontier for Asian traditional arts and how they could be innovatively furthered for the future. A traditional oral storytelling form, pansori is sung on the vocal precipice of overwhelming emotion. Yet instead of the imagined merciful catharsis one might expect, instead the viewer undergoes an overwhelming physical and emotional suspension over the course of two hours, with unshed half-tears and a pounding heart: the audience are frozen alongside the women in their unbearable wait. The shared intoxicating quality of total bodily investment within pansori and K-Pop performance is exemplified through the choral hymns of composer Jung Jae-il (Parasite, Squid Game), which are an auditory balm that soothes time after time after the percussive sharpness of the pansori solos.
Through a typical Western lens, it is deceptively easy (and problematic in itself) to read this adaptation as pandering to the hierarchical preference for European source materials within the performing arts; what it actually far more excitingly indicates is a willingness - within a traditionally specialised art form and finite repertoire - to engage and further its own reach through global stories and audiences outside of its immediate geographical origins. In comparison to the many arbitrarily modernised retellings of Greek classics that inevitably pop up every season, Trojan Women comes out stronger with an atemporal aesthetic that actually bolsters its unquestionable timely relevance.
Credit goes to the production’s core design team of Set Designer Cho Myung-Hee, Lighting Designer Scott Zielinski, and Video Designer Austin Switser, whose shared collaboration created an architectural set that simultaneously radiates outwards into infinity and space, yet spirals in on itself through the performers’ meandering circles. These characters, already marked for death in their stark white costuming and make-up (Costume Design by Kim Moo-hong, Make-Up Design by Park Hyo-Jeong), bemoan the idiocy of man’s destructive cycles: blood-red balls of yarn spill across the stage signalling the futility of winding back what is already unravelled, highlighting the humiliation that we as a society really haven’t moved past what was written 2,400 years ago.
Both the artistic form and subject matter begs the audience to consider the humbling yet tragic nature of our patterns, all of which we are complicit in as consumers and spectators. This interrogatory effect is particularly heightened by the delightfully Artaudian touch of blinding audience lights during scenes when the Greek victors are present, spotlighting us as one with the self-proclaimed “civilised” conquerors, a reminder of all the times we have always passively watched women and children be sentenced and shamed to terrible fates– these Epic moments are, by design and necessity, physically and emotionally uncomfortable.
By following this single group of women, their scene-by-scene interactions with other individuals and factions create an ever-evolving dynamic that peels apart an intersection at a time: the individual versus the collective, the generationally-divided ideas of what an acceptable life is, and the oft-gendered conditions of support and solidarity. Though these intersections each contain additional layers specific to Asian viewers, they are generally readable by viewers of all backgrounds. Against this tense tapestry of inherent identities, the play’s call to arms hinges on the last vestiges of self-identification afforded towards these women: the difference between acquiescing towards subserviency and its scraps of ‘dignity,’ or choosing defiance to the end as a radical emancipation.
It is a testament to Ong’s relentless pursuit of relativity that no proclamations go without a caveat, no revelations go without a dialectical cycle. The women’s final victory is underlined by the exceptions that not all are fairly afforded the privilege of reclaiming agency, portrayed in the casting of Helen of Troy as a non-binary outsider whose status wholly depends on those who claim her; instead of ending at Hecuba’s triumphant self-deliverance, we conclude with the Soul of Souls’s sobering requiem for the cyclical downfall of humanity, a fate which we are perpetually destined for lest we break out of it.
Oftentimes, especially when surrounded by rampant grief and suffering, there’s a question of why we as a society bother continuing to make art. This production of Trojan Women by Keng Sen Ong and the National Changgeuk Company of Korea not only sweeps the question off the table with its intensely successful hybrid artistry, it reinvigorates us as one - at our current moment in time - to confront our shared enabling of suffering, and towards the ecstatic possibilities of prevailing against our worst human tendencies.
As spoken by the unshackled Hecuba with her impending destruction in sight:
우린 죽지만 죽지 않는다
We die, but we do not die.
다가올 수천 년 동안
For thousands of years,
사람들은 오래도록 이야기하리라 버티어 서라
Our courage will stand firm!
저들이 우리를 질질 끌고 가도록
Make them drag us off
우리는 누구도, 아무도 제 발로 걸어 트로이를 떠나지 않을 것이다
None of us will willingly walk away from Troy!
The quote translation from English into Korean is by the National Changgeuk Theatre of Korea.