Adaptation of Andromache fizzles

ANDROMACHE by Jean Racine, adapted by Evie Christie, directed by Graham McLaren (Necessary Angel/Luminato). At the Theatre Centre (1087 Queen West). To June 19. $51.50. 416-368-4849, See listing Rating: NN

War drives people mad. that’s the simplistic message at the heart of Necessary Angel’s Andromache. Writer Evie Christie has transformed Jean Racine’s play about war and vengeance into an overwrought soap opera, while director Graham McLaren handles the material with the same bluntness he lent the company’s 2009 Hamlet.

That’s a shame, because the production’s design initially intrigues. After descending the stairs of the Theatre Centre, we’re plunged into a hazy, smoke-filled hell, with armed soldiers grunting orders (“Turn off your fucking cellphones”) amidst loud music and the distant sounds of guns, bombs and dogs.

John Wynne’s sound design and Andrea Lundy’s stark lighting grip us in fear as we sit on all four sides of a square that could be a military barracks, common area or interrogation room somewhere in a Middle East war zone.

Once the actors begin delivering Christie’s exposition-heavy dialogue, however, the spell quickly breaks. After the Trojan War, Pyrrhus (Christopher Morris) holds the widow Andromache (Arsinée Khanjian) and her son, Astyanax (Kieran McNally Kennedy), prisoner. Orestes (Steven McCarthy), however, wants him to kill Astyanax so the boy won’t grow up to avenge his father, Hector’s, death.

The play’s less about politics than it is about sex: Orestes really wants to hook up with Hermione (Christine Horne), who’s in love with Pyrrhus, who’s after Andromache.

Christie’s writing is crude, unnuanced and often clumsy. (Someone refers to a “skeleton key to a lifetime of pain.”) McLaren has the actors shout, jostle and even repeatedly spit at each other, hammering home the idea that everyone’s been reduced to animals in this environment.

Morris uses his body and voice effectively to create a textbook sexual abuser, and Horne has a few moments when she rises above the ludicrous script – which elicited some laughs at the performance I saw – to show a bit of dignity.

But McCarthy seems lost for much of the play, and Khanjian has never been less effective, her thick accent impeding her pronunciation of some of the words.

In one attention-seeking moment, Hermione, filled with lust and rage, cranks up Cee Lo Green’s Fuck You and dances with abandon. That song could be McLaren’s message to theatregoers.

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