Friday , June 14 2024
Helen. featuring Lanxing Fu, Grace Bernardo, and Melissa Coleman-Reed (photo by Maria Baranova)
Helen. featuring Lanxing Fu, Grace Bernardo, and Melissa Coleman-Reed (photo by Maria Baranova)

Theater Review: ‘Helen.’ by Caitlin George – Getting Inside Helen of Troy

It takes guts to fashion a story for the stage with Eris, goddess of discord, as guiding spirit. Playwright Caitlin George and director Violeta Picayo have marshaled just this kind of chutzpah for Helen., an inside-out comic riff on the ancient Greek legend of Helen of Troy. Praise the gods, it mostly works.

People know the story, in roughest outline, as this: Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world and wife of the Greek king Menelaus, is abducted by a Trojan, Paris, precipitating the Trojan War.

The Real Helen of Troy?

But what was really going on with Helen and Paris? Abduction or elopement? The uncertainty leaves room for psychological speculation. As such, Helen. takes a third way. The play imagines our heroine as possessed of not only a restless spirit but the agency needed to abscond from her comfortable life of royal privilege and motherhood and embark on a solitary journey – toward she knows not what.

On the way she meets Paris and the two do fall in love. But while love – both romantic and family – is one element of this tale, Helen. is not a love story.

Nor is it a war story, really. Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon, touting their quests for “glory,” are presented not as brave warriors but as figures of fun. The production portrays Menelaus (the diminutive Jackie Rivera) as preening and boyish, Agamemnon (Jonathan Taikina Taylor) as a campy goofball.

Late in the action, Helen runs into the warriors Penthesilea (the Amazon queen), and Memnon of Ethiopia. These figures assisted Troy in the war, but their function in this telling isn’t clear, and their scene dissipates the play’s momentum. So does the appearance of Cassandra (Jessica Frey in a powerful turn), in spite of George’s cogent, literate writing and Frey’s valiantly committed orating. The whole sequence gives the impression of the playwright trying to cram too much into a story that’s otherwise svelte.

A Wild Journey Through Ancient Myth

Through most of the action, though, we are swept along by fast-paced and clever staging, humor (at TikTok speed), and appealing characterizations. Grace Bernardo is a compelling Clytemnestra; her pregnancy centers the family-love aspect of the story, initially as it’s played for laughs, and continuing when a horror erupts. Melissa Colman-Reed’s Timandra, Helen’s other sister, projects dignity even through the sisters’ stichomythic chatter.

Meanwhile, Lanxing Fu convincingly portrays Helen as an icon of feminist fortitude. Though riven by all the contradictions and complexities of human nature, she persists in her quest – not for “glory” but for meaning, for what today we might call self-actualization.

Songs of yesterday play softly in the background, thickening the atmosphere. The actors rapidly rapidly shift costumes, which are mostly minimalist in color or quantity, to transform into different characters. (All but Fu as Helen and Constance Strickland as Eris, the smooth-talking narrator/chorus, play at least two.)

Helen. featuring Jonathan Taikina Taylor, Jackie Rivera, Constance Strickland, Grace Bernardo, and Melissa Coleman-Reed (photo by Maria Baranova)
Helen. featuring Jonathan Taikina Taylor, Jackie Rivera, Constance Strickland, Grace Bernardo, and Melissa Coleman-Reed (photo by Maria Baranova)

It takes a little time to acclimate to the irregular time sequence, as seeming flashbacks turn out not be flashbacks at all but more like “flashsides.” Eris has warned us of this. In this mythos, “time moves, but not in lines.” So it goes when the goddess of chaos is running the show.

Helen confronts one facet of her actualization at the end, posing burning questions of herself: “I am a monster? I am Chaos?” Right there with you, Helen.

But the period after your name in the title tells it all: You’re not a victim, a pawn, or a plot device, and your undeniable beauty does not define you. You’re as heroic as Achilles.

Whatever that means! But Helen’s journey is a wild one. La MaMa in association with En Garde Arts present The SuperGeographics’ production of Helen. through October 29. Tickets are available online.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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