Playwright: Ellen McLaughlin
At: Next Theatre Company,
927 Noyes Street, Evanston
Phone: 847-475-1875; $20-$35
Runs through: Oct. 15
By Jonathan Abarbanel
In four years as Next Theatre Company artistic director, Jason Loewith has saved the struggling troupe. His commitment to socially provocative drama has resulted in an expanded subscriber base, an increased budget and more productions. It's good news for one of Chicago's oldest Off-Loop companies.
So why do I find much of what Next does unsatisfying? It finally hit me: the bright and articulate Loewith chooses plays for the challenge of ideas rather than for theatrical merit. He's after grist for thought more than a good night out at theater, at least as I define a good night out.
Helen is an example. The legendary beauty of ancient Greece was married to the Spartan king Menelaus but seduced by the Trojan prince Paris, leading to the Trojan War. But what if Helen wasn't seduced by Paris? What if vindictive gods created a substitute Helen out of clouds, and it was the fake Helen who fled with Paris to Troy, and over whom a bloody 10-year war was fought? What if the real Helen had been spirited away to Egypt until Menelaus, quite by chance, found her after a decade of war and seven more years wandering home? That's this play's premise—based on Euripides—with the added fillip of a contemporary setting.
Playwright Ellen McLaughlin isolates Helen in a luxurious Egyptian hotel suite, where she's had no news for 17 years. Her TV gets The Weather Channel but not CNN, so she doesn't know the Trojan War ended with a Greek victory. Helen is tended to by her servant and visited almost randomly by the minor goddess Io and the great goddess Athena. But these three appear in separate scenes—in very classical fashion, only two actors ever are on stage together—so the same exposition is repeated three times as Helen plies them for news. With no dramatic conflict between them, it's boring.
Finally, Menelaus shows up. At last, something's at stake. In the only dramatically effective scene, he leaves the real Helen behind and continues home with the false Helen. The substitute, being god-created, hasn't aged and can work alluring wonders. She is the idea of perfect human beauty rather than beauty itself. Since the war was fought over the idea, there's no place for the truth ( especially since the real Helen now is 39 ) . The Iraqi War confirms that truth has little to do with fighting wars.
Bottom line: At 95 minutes, Helen is 35 minutes too long. Andrea J. Dymond's direction is lively, the set is gorgeous ( Keith Pitts, designer ) , Hollis McCarthy makes what can be made of Helen and Jeff Still is effectively weary and plain-spoken as Menelaus. But it's not enough for a satisfying night out. You can't stretch a thoughtful sketch into a good play.