Helen of Troy has been heralded as the ideal of female beauty for thousands of years. Euripides, Homer and many other writers and artists have tried to capture her likeness, including her famous "face that launch'd a thousand ships."
The University Theatre production of Helen (through Dec. 7 at the UW's Hemsley Theatre) also tells this woman's story, but instead of celebrating the ideal female form, playwright Ellen McLaughlin examines the archetypal roles beautiful women have been cast in throughout history.
Artfully directed by Shannon Davis, Helen marries ancient poetry with absurdism, and a treatise on gender studies with references to pop culture, all while underlining the emptiness of superficial love, fame and power. Although this Helen (Anne Guadagnino) has been captured by the gods and deposited in Egypt just as the Trojan War begins, her cell is an Art Deco-inspired hotel room flanked by billowy sheer fabric, and it exists in no particular time. A dressing table covered with makeup and fashion magazines, a malfunctioning television and an Egyptian servant (Hilary Dadio-Perrone) help her pass the time, 17 years of it, while she swats at flies and yearns for the victor to rescue her.
Over the course of the play, Helen receives news of the war and its many refugees from Io (Delaney Egan), who was recently restored to human form after living as a cow for years. Then she's taunted by Athena (a dark version of the warrior goddess played with real swagger by Chelsea Anderson), and finally reunited with Menelaus (a shell-shocked, battle-weary Daniel Millhouse), who rejects her in favor of an imposter Helen -- an empty and ageless replica -- the gods have conjured.
Although the text is dense with philosophy, literary analysis and mythological backstory, the production is compelling on more than just an intellectual level.
Guadagnino is absolutely captivating in the role of Helen. Certainly beautiful, she is also complex; she is lost, bored, confounded by her plight, contemptuous of the men who fought over her, and wistful for the position her beauty afforded her before the war. She is also complicit in her imprisonment. Just as she has played the roles of prize, possession, wife, adulterer, temptress, media darling, public commodity and icon, she has played the victim.
But in the play's final moment, when she considers making a stronger choice, Helen is truly beauty personified.