review: helen

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[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-HELEN.html]

HELEN

by Ellen McLaughlin
Directed by Andrea J. Dymond
Next Theatre Company
Noyes Cultural Arts Center 927 Noyes Street
(847) 475-1875 / NextTheatre.org
Extended Through October 15, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 30, 2006

Dramatized poetry or poetic theatre — by whatever name, Ellen McLaughlin‘s exploration of a new twist on the Helen of Troy story is mesmerizing thinking person’s theatre. “Helen” has received a lovely production at Next Theatre in Evanston.

In this version of the Trojan War story, Menelaus’s wife Helen is not dragged to Troy by Paris but instead goes to Egypt to wait out the war while a “cloud Helen” imposter takes her place. The human Helen spends 17 years waiting in a luxury hotel room for her husband Menelaus to rescue her. Is this play then tragic-comedy or the story of a woman coming into her own, slowly developing her own voice and motivations, reaching beyond waiting to living her own life? The play is an explicit exploration of the power of iconic beauty and its effects and those who actually possess it and those who strive to possess it through obsession, through stalking, through photographs. McLaughlin contemplates the effects of celebrity culture through familiar mythical and historical characters. In the end of course, this musing on the myth about the origins of a war almost must be a commentary on the claimed roots of all wars. An embarrassment of riches, theme-wise.

The performances themselves hold many gems. Helen is a beauty by the standards of any age as portrayed by Hollis McCarthy. Her voicing annoys at first, until we realize that she is playing her own version of a role and has not, in essence, stood in her own power, in her own voice. As the play proceeds, her voice and her thoughts deepen and become more provocative to the listener. Her servant, confidant, and feminist mentor (in effect teaching Helen to take control of her own power) is underplayed beautifully by Diane Dorsey. The human Io, transformed to a cow, and returned to human form, is played with humor and self-effacement by Tasha Anne JamesLaura T. Fisher plays the goddess Athena who admits to her role in playing with Helen’s life, placing her in a spiritual and physical, pampered, Egyptian dead end holding tank. I would love to see this actress take on “Mame” or any other big voiced brassy larger than life character. The lone male in the company, Menelaus, is given stalwart life by Jeff Still, who generates sympathy while representing the dim hoards who are indeed blinded by beauty and befuddled by life’s events.

This play is not designed to be action packed and special effect filled, yet director Andrea J. Dymond , scenic designer Keith Pitts, lighting designer Charles Cooper, and sound designer Victoria DeIorio have assembled moments of magic – sudden appearances and smoky appearances and Trumpet Voluntary-like heralds.

McLaughlin describes herself as a “language playwright”. Yes indeed – she provides layered thoughts and luscious language to thrill the theatre going soul. McLaughlin has published “Helen” among her other treatment of Greek characters in a 2005 book entitled “The Greek Plays”. They are not translations but original works inspired by the translations of others. She is dramaturgically informed and spectacularly gifted. And we in the audience are the ones who benefit.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 30, 2006)

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