Helen | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Helen 

HELEN

Vacant Lot Productions

outdoors at the Theatre Shoppe

When it comes to clandestine operations and cover-ups, Ollie North is a piker compared to the Greek gods. At least the gods according to Helen, Euripides' only comedy, a piece of light- hearted revisionist mythology from 412 BC based on Stesichorus's silly retelling of the Helen legend. It seems it wasn't Helen, the loyal wife of the Spartan king Menelaus, whom Paris stole away to Troy, thus igniting the ten-year Trojan War; it was a devious facsimile created from the clouds by Hera, Zeus's jealous wife, to trick Paris. The real Helen would have stayed put. What Hera cooked up, in short, was a sort of Greek "Gulf of Tonkin Resolution," a pretext for the pointless (but to the gods, delicious) Trojan War.

At the same time, Zeus commanded Hermes to steal his daughter, the real Helen, and hide her in Egypt among the "barbarians" (sort of sounds like Moses). To make matters worse, Theoclymenus, King of Egypt, now wants to make Helen his wife.

Understandably, the much abused Helen hasn't taken to her decade of exile. "Was I born a monster among mankind?" she wonders. Though she has always behaved properly, her fatal beauty has produced only scandal and disgrace; her mother Leda (whom Zeus coupled with disguised as a swan) even hanged herself in shame.

Euripides' comedy (so called only because it has a happy ending, not because it's anything like Aristophanes) attempts to rehabilitate Helen's tarnished image. The story details how, the ridiculous war ended, Menelaus just happens to get shipwrecked in Egypt, where after much persuasion (which seems to parody the recognition scenes between Odysseus and Penelope and between Orestes and Electra) Helen convinces him she's the real McCoy. (The fake Helen, hidden away in a cave, escapes and is apparently forgotten; I was hoping she'd turn up--then we might have had a real comedy.)

After Menelaus discovers "We were swindled by the gods!" (tell it to Job, Men), he and Helen enlist Theoclymenus's prophetess sister and bamboozle the effete Egyptian "outlander." Menelaus pretends to be a Greek soldier come to tell Helen her husband is dead. She tells the Egyptian king that Greek funeral rites require Helen to drop his effigy into the sea where he presumably died. Of course, the reunited couple keep on sailing back to Sparta. In a protracted and anticlimactic epilogue, Theoclymenus pouts and fumes--until Helen's immortal twin brothers Castor and Polydeuces explain to him the logic of the gods' assorted dirty tricks. Which makes as much sense, I suppose, as godly logic ever does in any era.

To make this a comedy in more than genre, as Center Theater did with their hilariously updated Lysistrata 2411 AD, Eric Ronis's staging rushes headlong toward mock epic. Performed in the Theatre Shoppe's very basic backyard, under a shady tree of heaven, with next-door neighbors occasionally peering through the fence and all the nearby bustle of a Mexican restaurant, Helen is pretty deflated of dignity to start with.

On top of which Vacant Lot piles on such anachronisms as Queen's "We Are the Champions" blasting from a boom box while the actors do a crudely mimed parody of the Trojan War (naturally they also work in "Walk Like an Egyptian"). When Helen and Menelaus are reunited, they recognize each other by exchanging snapshots. The Egyptian portress who guards the gate holds some kind of ancient black belt. The twin gods in the final wrap-up are narcissistic body- builders who just wandered out of Miami Vice, and the chorus of captive Greek women are dolled down to look like workaholic cleaning ladies. Helen, whose favorite reading is Edith Hamilton's Mythology, wears glamorous shades and a carmine party dress with matching high heels, while the prophetess Thenoe, a demented brat, turns out to be a Swedish valley girl who practices her magic by dismembering a Barbie doll. Strangest of all, a self-effacing potted plant placed on the stage gets pointed at over and over whenever someone refers to Egypt. (Couldn't they find an imitation palm tree?)

Ingenious updating aside, Ronis's staging suffers from too little physical comedy, jerky pacing, too few inspired character actors, and some jittery line readings too broadly delivered. Despite the rough edges, Ronis does successfully open up an obscure and ancient play and he delivers enough of Euripides' goods--particularly the captives' final chorus--to justify the effort. In short, a classical standoff.

Laurie Galluccio certainly looks the title role, no easy task; better yet, she brings brainy zest to Helen's elaborate stratagems (you almost expect to hear Helen drop character and snarl, "I'm gonna beat this bum rap!") and pathos to the lonely, lovely lady. Pompous with self-pity, Paul Engelhardt plays the unheroic Menelaus with too much forced bluster, while, bedecked in gold chains and a lavender muumuu, David Franks is the flaming fop Theoclymenus, in a performance no one will ever accuse of excessive restraint or understated good taste.

I like it that Euripides gives the last words to the cleaning ladies; unfortunately, they turn out to be one more variation on that endless Greek chorus, the gist of which is always, "Well, you just never know . . ." I'm glad Homer honored the gods' cover-up of their dirty tricks; familiarity aside, his authorized version of Paris and Helen remains a lot more human. Still, the Vacant Lot troupe sure give Euripides' rewrite the old college try.

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