A rehearsal for an upcoming production of the ancient Greek play "The Trojan Women" at California Lutheran University looks as modern as can be.
The student actors have scripts on iPads provided by the drama department, wear mostly T-shirts and jeans, and tease each other with references to pop songs and television shows.
Despite rehearsing on a grim set that will put the audience behind a high chain-link fence looking down on what will be a scene of brutal devastation, they display the casual cool of 21st-century suburbanites.
One wouldn't guess that they had much experience with war and forced service, but appearances can be deceiving. Patricia Jaramillo, a sophomore playing the pivotal role of Andromache, a woman fated to be given as a prize to a king and to have her young son torn away from her, identified strongly with the part due to her family history.
"My family is from Chile, and when my dad was about my age, the Pinochet coup happened and my dad was forced to go into the military for many years," she said. "It was something that he doesn't really talk about. From my mom, I got the woman's perspective on this because she had to live through that. So for me, this is a very personal thing to share."
The play, a tragedy, is mostly about the suffering of the women of Troy, including Cassandra, who foresees a tragedy but knows she will never be believed, and the fabled beauty Helen, fated to pay a price for leaving her Spartan husband for the handsome, doomed Trojan prince named Paris. The play will run through Nov. 18 in the Black Box Studio Theatre at CLU.
Erik Klein, who plays the Spartan King Menelaus, described the play as heavy. He said he was afraid his family and friends wouldn't like him in the part of the vengeful king who took his nation to war over Helen's infidelity.
"I hope they will come to sympathize with my character," he said. "Frankly, it makes me grateful not to have these issues in my life."
Director Michael Arndt encouraged the actors to build their characters with research into the horrors of more recent wars, including World War II and the conflicts in Korea, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.
"I wanted them not to just memorize lines and do a performance of these characters, but to internalize the kind of experiences these women went through, by finding other victims of 20th century wars who went through similar experiences," he said.
For Klein, the research has brought up memories of his own family, some of whom had to flee the Holocaust.
"I wear a jacket which is a replica of an actual SS Gestapo jacket," he said. "I don't ever want to put that on."
The students brought their research to costume designer Val Miller, who worked with clothes and makeup to make real their characters' suffering.
"Patty Jaramillo is a bright and lovely young woman," Miller said. "But her character will have extensive napalm burns on the left side of her face and body. She needs to be aware of the extreme pain of those burns, which will help her find the darkness in her soul."
While teaching high school in the 1960s, Arndt was drafted into the war in Vietnam. He brought with him a book by Shakespeare.
"I had a book of Shakespeare's sonnets that I lost in a firefight," he said. "Someone sent me another complete edition, and I would memorize sonnets and recite them at night while on guard duty. I found that helped keep me sane in the midst of that horror."
Arndt said that as a combat veteran, he was struck by the play's focus on women as the victims of war.
"In all wars, the military will at times run roughshod over innocent civilians," he said. "This is a play about those people — the people that are forgotten."
Arndt said the ancient playwright Euripides consciously made his characters suffer to elicit feeling from the audience.
"When I see a young boy torn from his mother and threatened, as a parent, that tugs at my heart," he said.
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IF YOU GO
What: "Trojan Women"
Where: Black Box Studio Theater at California Lutheran University, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Wednesday, Thursday and Nov. 17; 2 p.m. Nov. 18Cost: $10
--- Published in the Ventura County Star on Nov. 9, 2012