HSU Stage web page for Helen, but I did some dramaturgical research for the director, who also is my partner, Margaret Thomas Kelso. So consider this more of an insider account, if you wish.
Helen is a comedy about Helen of Troy adapted by contemporary American playwright Ellen McLaughlin from a play by Euripides. Years ago, Eric Bentley suggested that university theatre should mount four kinds of plays: the great classics of the past, new plays, modern classics, and forgotten plays. This play is a fairly new, very modern forgotten play that adapts an ancient forgotten classic. (Although, by some cosmic coincidence, the rarely performed Euripides version of Helen was done at UC Santa Cruz earlier this month. )
Ellen McLaughlin has done closer adaptations of other Greek plays, but this is more her own. She's also an actor--in fact, she was the original Angel in Angels in America, from its first workshops through Broadway. Her working relationship with Tony Kushner continued when he directed the New York production of Helen at the Public Theatre. But I only found a few productions of it since. So this is a rare opportunity to see it.
I saw a run-through a couple of weeks ago, before the tech stuff was added. I've heard film directors say that the biggest part of their job is done in casting the movie. When I saw the run-through, I felt that way about this cast: they're at least half the battle. There are only five actors, and only two of them have more than one big scene. But they all look right for their roles and they all bring something interesting to their characters, and perhaps most importantly as a starting point, they all have a strong stage presence. Stage presence is really a mostly intangible combination of factors that adds up to someone your eyes and ears are drawn to, someone you just have to watch when they're on stage.
The casting coup was Darcy Daughtry, who plays Helen. Helen is on stage for all but a moment of the play, and it turns out that Darcy can hold that stage with ease. She's been in North Coast theatre since she was a child, I'm told. I've seen her in several North Coast Rep productions, and in last season's Othello. But not in a role this major. Judging from what I've seen, and what I've heard Margaret say about the work she's been doing on the part, I think this could be a breakout role for her. She's got an immense charm and assurance. She holds the stage, and she takes you with her.
This is Margaret's first full length play as a director here. She directed several plays at her last job, including one with a very large cast. (I ran a follow spot for that one, and did some sound, as I recall. ) In fact, shortly after we met in Pittsburgh, she directed a short play I wrote. Directing can be exhausting and thankless, but she's really been thriving on this experience. She's already looking for another play to direct, for the HSU season after next. She seems happier doing this than working on the play she wrote (Relative Captivity) while it was being done last term. I attribute a lot of that to working with Darcy, but directing as a practical matter, as an activity even apart from the outcome, is about relationships as much as anything else. I can't say for sure, but she seems to have "a happy set" (borrowing from movie lore again.)
(Of course, these are human beings--and besides that, college students. And it's spring. So with all the people involved--cast, crew, etc.-- a romance beginning, a romance ending can both wreak their little havoc on efficiency. It happens.)
Directing in an academic setting has its particular challenges as well as opportunities. Mounting the best show is just part of it; the learning experience for students is another. Seeing how that works in previous college productions I've observed has certainly fed back into how I review plays in any academic setting. But as far as what becomes visible, the opportunity is for all of us to discover something fresh and new. Sometimes that leads to surprisingly new ways into a play. That's very likely with Helen, partly because it's been done so few times.
But there are other complications in an academic setting, like the calendar. Between the run-through I saw and the dress rehearsals this week, there was spring break. That certainly complicated the publicity, and it seems to have made this week more frantic. But all theatre is like that--as in that famous, favorite quotation from Shakespeare in Love:"Let me explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to immense disaster…" " So what do we do?" "Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well." "How?" "I don’t know. It’s a mystery."
Of course, it's not all mysterious. There's a lot of planning, vision, care, effort and sacrifice as well as last-minute creativity and sudden concentration. I've heard about some new tech stuff being added to Helen, as well as sound and light problems on the way to being solved. So I'm wondering if I should sneak into the last dress rehearsal tonight, or wait for opening night Thursday. I guess it will depend on how late I am putting up more posters.