Troy is Burning may be the first play written by an undergraduate to make it into the UVA Drama Department’s main-stage season in 25 years, but its first step toward production was just another day in the undergraduate grind for fourth-year student Matthew Minnicino. Last spring, Minnicino needed something to bring in to a playwriting workshop, so he decided to rewrite the beginning of a play he wrote in high school. The class was impressed, as was UVA associate professor and head of playwriting Doug Grissom, so Minnicino rewrote his entire script over the course of the workshop and an ensuing independent study with Grissom, which culminated in a few staged readings with students and local actors. After what Minnicino refers to as “a number of lucky coincidences and a lot of outside encouragement,” his retelling of the fall of Troy was selected for UVA Drama’s 2011 production season.
Undergraduate playwright Matthew Minnicino re-imagines the end of the Trojan War in Troy is Burning, which takes the stage at UVA’s Helms Theatre from Wednesday, November 30 to Sunday, December 4. Photo by John Robinson.
This Wednesday night, one of the youngest playwrights ever to set the stage at the Helms Theatre debuts with one of the oldest stories in the Western canon. In Troy is Burning, Minnicino re-imagines the final days of the Trojan War with modern voices and post-modern anachronism. “Point of interest,” says Agamemnon to his Greek cohort in an early scene, “Tomorrow, we will have been fighting this war for exactly 10 years. And we’re almost out of shrimp fried rice.”
If jokes like this come off as flippant given the source material, it’s because Minnicino isn’t out to prove anything about his classics knowledge. Though he owns multiple translations of The Iliad and The Aeneid, Minnicino is more interested in “getting the soul of the thing right” than making good on obscure classical references (although the script does that in full). “The question I wanted to get at, is why was that story told back then, and how does that relate to why it’s being told now?” he said over the phone last week. “How are the issues they were dealing with thousands of years ago related to the issues that I want my audience to deal with?”
Often, Minnicino probes the horrors of war via witticism, only to later unleash them on his characters to greater irony and effect. When Deiphobus tells an insecure Helen of Troy he thinks she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, she avers that “That’s also technically true,” but her final reconciliation with her vengeful husband is a shade away from heartbreaking. And while musings on war from the mind of a 22-year-old may be hard to take seriously, Troy is Burning avoids overstepping its bounds by focusing its energies on complicating larger-than-life characters and examining the nature of myth. As the Hours explain to Pyrrhus, “To be here. To never get here. To always be here. To be born here. To die here. This is Troy, son of Achilles, where you will live forever.”
In what must be an attempt to lighten an overly tragic season, the publicity for Minnicino’s show bills it as a satire, and although Troy is Burning has a cheeky streak, it adroitly follows a path laid out by the great tragedians. “The story of the fall of Troy is not a lighthearted romp,” Minnicino said. “The comedy is there to keep people realizing that tragedy is mixed with comedy all the time. That’s just how the world works. The absurd is often juxtaposed with the dark elements of our lives.”
Whatever his plays become known for down the road, Minnicino has been a gregarious presence in the UVA Drama and English departments for the past three-and-a-half years. Every undergraduate theater junkie seems to know him, or know a good story about him (this writer once saw him play violin in a shirt, tie and boxers in a wordless one-act prelude to another student’s thesis performance).
As an actor, Minnicino was either precocious or presumptuous enough to try out for a supporting role in his own play, and gifted enough to land it. For Minnicino, acting in the show while UVA professor and head of acting Richard Warner directs has been an eye-opening process. When, in his second year, Minnicino wrote and directed a full-length student-produced play called Persephone, he found that occupying both roles didn’t give him enough critical distance from what he had written, and that his actors didn’t have enough freedom to interpret their characters. Minnicino said the current process has allowed him to “find the balance between the story I wanted to tell and the story that was performable,” and that working with Warner and the actors on tweaking and interpreting lines has allowed Troy is Burning to take on meanings that he didn’t have in mind when writing and workshopping it.
The first stage direction in Troy is Burning is a directive to “embrace confusion.” And this is something that Minnicino and his explosive play have in common: They revel in multifaceted roles.