Helen of Troy, the beauty whose face launched a thousand ships, the woman whose exploits inspired poets and playwrights from Homer to Euripides to Virgil to Shakespeare and his contemporary Christopher Marlowe (who wrote the line about the ships), is done with doing dishes, or peeling vegetables. In “Helen,” a play by Caitlin George that’s billed as “a funny, feminist riff on a familiar myth,” she decides to leave home.
“I want to go on an adventure,” Helen (Lanxing Fu) tells her sisters. “I am a conqueror,” she tells her husband Menelaus.
“You are a Mother,” Menelaus (Jackie Rivera) replies. “A lousy one to be sure but there are obligations.”
“Helen,” a production of En Garde Arts and SuperGeographics at La MaMa ETC through October 29, is at its juiciest when presenting the story of this alluring figure from Ancient Greek mythology as if she is a twenty-first century housewife, with anachronisms that are both amusing and pointed. Helen complains that “after our daughter was born, Menelaus disappeared for eight months. Never said anything. Although, to be fair, he did leave a note.”
But such moments are not frequent enough in this ninety-minute play. More humor is probably intended, but it is muted or obscured in one of two ways. There are classical allusions that I suspect require a greater working knowledge of the Iliad or the Odyssey than most New York theatergoers have retained. (That comment about Menelaus isn’t as funny if you don’t remember that he is the King of Sparta and a hero of the Trojan War – which we’re not explicitly told in the play.) And the show is suffused with the kind of artifice and obfuscation that is esteemed by many experimental theater companies. “Helen” is less Real Housewives of Sparta than Surreal Artists of the Avant-Garde. Even scenes that are meant to emphasize how mundane her life is (she and her sisters discuss laundry, housecleaning and grocery shopping at their mother’s wake) are presented with highly stylized dialogue. Many of the monologues in the play have the rhythm, repetition and rhetorical devices of poetry.
There is a narrator, Eris (Constance Strickland), but she happens to be the goddess of chaos, so it might not be surprising that she doesn’t always lead us into the light. Here is a sample sentence from her monologue explaining (I think) that the story will not be told in strict chronological order: “Time is loops, it’s globs and eternities that spiral into out of around what might have come after before…”
Given the challenges of the script, the seven members of the cast are troupers, all but two of whom portraying multiple characters. I consider it a bonus that all but one of the actors are female, since some of the most accessible humor mocks the male warrior mentality, e.g.:
Menelaus: We are brave
Agamemnon: We are strong
Menelaus: We laugh at monsters….But not at little puppies
Agamemnon: Little puppies we pat, gently
This gets a clever echo in a scene between Helen and Penthesilea (although, again, the scene is not as effective unless you know that Penthesilea is the Queen of the Amazons):
“I’d like to learn from you,” Helen tells Penthesilea.
“How to be a warrior?” Penthesilea inquires.
“Do you have any relevant work experience?”
“I can build a fire. I’m familiar with ways of the road.”
“….We’re past that now. Move on.”
“Helen” is an ensemble piece, with Helen only one of more than a dozen characters. But Lanxing Fu gets some resonant and clarifying moments , such as this exchange with Strickland’s Eris:
What do you want, Helen?
I want to wake up to juicy oranges. I want sex rough when I say so, gentle sex when I don’t. I want bread, fresh bread, warm, steaming when you break it apart with your hands. I want our children to play nice, to need me and to not need me. I don’t want to be looked at. I want the floor to be swept. I want to be extraordinary. I want to be remarkable. I want to be held often, and tightly, to be put down gently. I want to run till my feet are bruised and bloody, till my body is sweaty and spent and mine, only mine.
Is that all?
Is it? Really? Wow. It doesn’t seem like much. It seems like the bare bloody minimum and yet somehow it’s too much. Too much and nowhere near enough….
La MaMa through October 29
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $30. Students/seniors: $25
Written by Caitlin George
Directed by Violetca Picayo
Set and costume design by James Schuette, lighting design by Jackie Fox and Connor Sale, sound design by Darron L. West, production stage manager Caroline Englander, producer/dramaturg Megan E. Carter
Cast: Constance Strickland as Eris, Lanxing Fu as Helen, Grace Bernardo as Klaitemestra/Penthesilea, Melissa Coleman-Reed as Timandra/Memnon, Jackie Rivera as Menelaus/Hektor/Hekuba, Jonathan Taikina Taylor as Agamemnon/Paris/Akhilles, Jessica Frey as Kassandra/Hermione
Photo by Maria Baranova