So what would happen if Homer, the playwright, had written for ‘Saturday Night Live’? You’d end up with something like Helen of Sparta, Venus Theatre’s campy mish-mash of ancient Greece and modern culture. It’s not great art, but it is great fun.
The play is a series of two or three person scenes that slowly unfold the story with their madcap twists. When the show opens, Paris (D. Grant Cloyd) has kidnapped Helen (Julia Heynen) from Sparta and spirited her home to Troy for a casual affair, but she turns out to be a difficult captive. Example? She’ll only eat foods that begin with the letter “Z”. Helen gets caught between the Trojan prince and his estranged wife, Oenone (Ellie Nicoll). Meanwhile, Helen’s husband, King Menelaus (Christian Sullivan) sets out to rescue his wife but runs into several obstacles such as being on the Pan-Hellenic “Do Not Sail” list and not having a proper visa to enter Troy. The forces of Greece attempt to rescue Helen, but are warned by the Oracle that the first man to debark from the Greek fleet will die. After consulting with the Trojan prophetess, Cassandra (Rebecca A. Herron) who says the Oracle is wrong, Protesilaus (Phil Amico) plans to be the first man to set foot on Troy, much to the consternation of his wife, Laodamia (Mary Burke-Hueffmeier). Cassandra errs, Protesilaus dies, Laodamia visits him in Hades, and Menelaus finally makes it to Sparta–but Helen has already saved herself.
The cast is uneven, but the weaker performances do not hurt the delivery of this humorous situational comedy scenes. Two standout performances: Julia Heynen, as Helen, delivers a forceful personification of the “face that launched a thousand ships.” She is beautiful, confident, charismatic and justifies being the center of attention. More often than not, she plays the straight woman, and her timing is smooth enough to support the comedy coming from her scene partners. In addition to playing Cassandra, Rebecca Herron also plays a host of chorus/ensemble roles throughout the play, and it is in presenting that host of extras that she truly shines. Her Lily Tomlinesque Pan-Hellenic security agent and later the visa inspector are some of the highlights of the show. She displays her comedic versatility with each distinctly different bit part. D. Grant Cloyd and Christian Sullivan as Paris and Menelaus respectively, do a respectable job of combining that mix of ancient hero and modern man (or in the case of Prince Paris, modern youth). Phil Amico as Protesilaus is slightly disconcerting. He is a more mature actor, but the lines and character seem to be for a younger actor. It takes a little suspension of disbelief to get around this incongruity. However, as a whole, the ensemble does a good job delivering the modern humor and keeping the audience laughing throughout.
Director Deborah Randall makes the most of limited resources. The stage is a simple black box with four faux columns and wall murals. The one depicting Troy looks like something that would be at a high school football game, and so again, displays that juxtaposition of ancient and modern references. Blocking can be difficult with audiences on two sides, but the scenes play out well to both sides as Randall makes good use of the small space, and keeps the performers moving smoothly.
The costumes continue the interesting cultural clash, being predominantly period, but with a few interesting modern trims thrown in. The technical aspects of the show are rather simplistic and cheesy, but due to the very tongue-in-cheek nature of the humor, most blend in to keep the show light and whimsical. The simple lighting and amusing sounds also added levity. Strobe lighting for the scene changes and mood lighting for the scene in Hades were quite appropriate for setting atmosphere for the show; as were the video arcade and pinball game sounds for scene changes and “voices of the gods” sound effects.
Unfortunately, the stage manager, in very bright, non-period clothing, was somewhat distracting when she came on stage during a scene either to help manage props, or climb a ladder to send some “gifts from the gods” down a chute. Masking the ladder from the audience and darker clothing would help avoid these problems.
All in all, a rather flippant and light-hearted production that is sure to provide a little distraction from the stress and worries of life. It’s worthwhile to take some time out to visit this small storefront theatre in Laurel for a little pick-me-up.
Helen of Sparta
By Jacob M. Appel
Directed by Deborah Randall
Produced by Venus Theatre Company
Reviewed by Ted Ying