A Daring ‘Helen’ Bogs Down in Second Act

By BETSY HUNTON Special to the Planet
Friday February 06, 2004

The Actor’s Ensemble, Berkeley’s oldest theater group (they’ve been around for 47 years) is staging a version of Helen of Troy which thumbs its nose at the story that most of us have heard over the years. You know, that’s the one that claims that the Trojan War’s 10 year’s worth of slaughter exploded into history because King Menelaos’ wife, Helen, run off with the gorgeous Greek Prince, Paris.  

Helen (played by the admirably cast Heidi Hooker) serves as narrator, an effective technique probably left over from Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s 1955 German radio play. Subsequently there was a second radio version, a stage production and a musical. Director David Fenerty, who has acted in several AE productions, both translated and adapted the current version. This time around, Helen promises to give us the “real story”—which cynics might comment bears a certain resemblance to the way the United States has ended up in Iraq. Not, mind you, that anyone is raising any questions about Laura Bush’s virtue. What Helen reveals is that the whole bloody war was a set-up. Menelaos was looking for an excuse to go to war with Greece.  

While Helen minces no words about either her rich and varied personal life or her quite understandable dislike of her husband, Minelaos (Hal Schneider), she is a bit surprised when he encourages her to initiate a romance with the youthful and attractive Greek prince, Paris (Tadamori Yagi). 

Janelle Carte does the most that can be done with her role as Hermione, Helen’s Miss Priss daughter, who understandably thinks the guy should be her own target, but hasn’t a chance up against her mother’s well practiced skills. The bulk of the first act is spent in Helen’s futile attempts to seduce the astonishingly naïve Greek prince. It’s an amusing exchange which continues to amuse for a surprisingly long time. 

The result, however, is that the second act bears the weight of about two-thirds of the traditional story content. The playwright, alas, while willing to take vast liberties with the characters, seems to feel required to crowd into that part of the production most of the events from a story which isn’t very funny at all. Real historical/political junkies may actually prefer the second act to the first, despite the fact that it requires Paris to abruptly adopt a totally different personality and Helen to limit much of her narration—one of the strongest elements of this production. Instead, after flinging out an interminable glob of historical information, her role seems to become something of an also-ran while the rest of the traditional events in the story are rushed along.  

Maybe there’s just no way to carry out the joke the play begins with, and maybe audiences long used to mixing traditional dramatic genres are inured to this sort of thing, but it does seem rather a shame. 

Helen of Troy shows Fridays and Saturdays through Feb. 21, with a special Thursday show Feb. 19. All performances are at 8 p.m. at the Live Oak Theatre; 1301 Shattuck Ave. Tickets $10. For reservations, call 649-5999.