At the risk of sounding like a Philistine, I must confess that I'm puzzled by the vogue for all things Greek sweeping American theaters large and small. This summer alone I've seen five productions derived from the ancients' themes and characters. Still to come is Charles L. Mee's Big Love (based on Aeschylus' The Suppliant Women, believed by many to be the oldest surviving play in the Western world), which hits the Goodman this fall. I suppose we could chalk it up to the new millennium, which impels us to look backward in order to go forward. And Lord knows, after last fall's election shenanigans, a glance back at the birthplace of democracy is understandable.
In its new collaged piece about the original "It" girl, Oblivion Theatre Company (formerly Constellation Players) tackles the enigmatic Helen, the Spartan princess sired by Zeus, married to Menelaus, and kidnapped by Paris--the face that launched a thousand ships. This is the company's first attempt at creating a nonlinear show drawing upon a wealth of sources, a technique popularized by playwrights like Mee and Richard Foreman. And under Dan Winkler's direction, the five cast members demonstrate an admirable commitment to their murky, occasionally tendentious material. Before the show begins, the cast and director amble self-consciously through the playing area, a device that's dropped once the piece gets under way, when the fourth wall goes up brick by brick as the performers deliver a series of monologues, songs, and short scenes.
The evening opens with "everyone says" comments from the performers, presumably drawn from their own histories. "Everyone says I'll never commit." "Everyone says I shouldn't have gotten divorced." "Everyone says I am lucky to be alive." "Everyone says I need a haircut." After this getting-to-know-them device, the actors move on to material "inspired by" such sources as Sara Teasdale's poem "Helen of Troy" and H.D.'s late work Helen in Egypt, which explores the possibility that Helen and Paris crashed on the Egyptian shores, where she stayed while a decoy was sent to Troy.
Few sources are explicitly identified during the show (with the exception of an excerpt from Jeanette Winterson's novel Written on the Body, which closes the evening and is identified by a placard onstage). Nor do the actors ever play any of the ancient characters directly. Instead, several vignettes address lust, violence, the tyranny of history, and the role of the storyteller. In a particularly disturbing sequence, a young woman (Stacy Magerkurth) is bound and blindfolded--apparently at her request--while a coldly clinical man (Ben Stephens) reads from a compendium of legends about Helen. Upon finding out that Helen's paternity didn't grant her immortality, the man sneers, "Half a god. Isn't that like being a little bit pregnant? And what's the point of being half a god if you can still die?"
But though The Helen Project has big aspirations, there simply isn't enough meat on these mythological bones to hold our interest. Early in the evening, one of the actresses (Leslie Charipar) talks about her revelation, at age 14, that girls who make jokes never get the boys--and notes that she stopped making jokes at that age. The Helen Project suffers from a similar desire to please through superficial solemnity. We learn quite a bit about how company members feel about themselves: their body-image issues, fidelity or lack thereof, being the object of the male gaze/being the one gazing, and the usual undergraduate laundry list of personal/sexual politics.
But by the end of the evening I had the distinct feeling that this solipsism would have taken center stage no matter what the topic. Oblivion Theatre could have called this "The I Dream of Jeannie Project" and the results would probably have felt the same. The most successful elements are the pop songs interspersed throughout (particularly Stephin Merritt's mournful ballad "Abigail, Belle of Kilronan," from the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, about a man leaving his beloved to fight in a war). Their directness and emotional accessibility provide the passion lacking from the rest of the evening.
No one could accuse Aristophanes of being a stuffed shirt--though stuffed nether regions abound in his work. And Tripaway Theatre's Dubya-era update of his early comedy The Acharnians (adapted by Karin Shook with Kerstin Broockmann and directed by Shook) employs phalluses of every description, from crosses to missiles to pencils. Unfortunately, this undeniably accurate critique of our current miserable ship of state feels as belabored as the dick sight gags strewn throughout.
In the original, a man tired of war makes his own peace with Sparta and sparks a utopian vision. In Tripaway's version, a humble garlic farmer, Vox Populi (Annette D'Ariano), makes peace with the Canadians, under attack by the United States for not allowing Dubya's pals access to their oil fields. (Declaring war on Canada is wearing thin as a comic device; after "Blame Canada" from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, what remains to be said?)
The most successful element of this show, performed by three actors employing masks and puppets with varying degrees of skill, is Chris Genebach's gleefully over-the-top performance as Shrub ("Georgius W. Bushiphallus"). His feral child of privilege captures the shadow side of the president's persona, the overweening sense of entitlement he tries so hard to mask in public. Watching Genebach scream demands to his daddy is like seeing Mike Teevee from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on steroids. (Where are the Oompa-Loompas when you need them?) Genebach's ride around the stage on his imaginary horse, rocket phallus flapping wildly, recalls Slim Pickens's yee-haw ride to global annihilation in Dr. Strangelove.
But for the most part the show's targets are too obvious. Right-wing Christians are hate mongers; bureaucrats are smarmy, power-hungry toadies; and Bush is bad for the economy, the food supply, the environment, and world peace. And Shook's direction is turgid and one-dimensional, rendering the material even thinner. Jesus and the Tooth Fairy pop up from time to time to aid the good guys, and appropriately enough, Jesus has the biggest schlong of them all. (You know what they say about guys with big souls and big hearts...) Jesus also gets off one of the best one-liners; talking about Andres Serrano's infamous Piss Christ, a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine, the Son of God rhapsodizes, "It's like living in a sunrise." The show could use more quirky asides like this to leaven the otherwise leaden satire.
It's not clear in either The Helen Project or Aristophanes' The Acharnians why the creators needed the Greeks to make their case. The cachet of the ancients doesn't buff up their material or make their stories any more compelling. Indeed, both shows resemble kids rummaging through old clothes in an attic, more concerned with how they look than with the history and meaning of their borrowed garb.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Dorjath.