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.