Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Lost "Helen" Review

I saw Helen on opening night, which I of course cannot write about in my print column because I get paid a magnificent hourly wage to write press releases in advance of HSU theatre productions (including Helen). Plus my partner, Margaret Thomas Kelso, is the director. Plus I did some additional dramaturgical research for this production (uncredited, I notice).

But here I am free, free! To judge my own integrity.

It's all a matter of degree, really, especially around here, and especially when inevitably you get to know people who are running these theatres, directing, acting etc. So when I go to see a play, everything else has to drop quietly in the background, deferring to the experience itself.

Anyway, this was the first time I saw the play since that early run-through, so naturally I first noticed the improvements to the set, and the lighting and sound effects I either hadn't seen or heard, or only partially in part of a tech rehearsal.

Then there was the odd feeling about laughing--was I laughing at what I laughed at before, was I missing stuff I'd found funny the first time because--well, because this was the second time? But I knew I was finding new laughs, either in lines I'd missed or because the actors had added new business and emphasis.

But once I got into the flow of the play itself, it was like any other opening night experience. And even with some first night jitters and stiffness here and there, I thought the performances were remarkably good. I'd gotten the feeling that Margaret was thriving in her experience as a director, and I could see why. The combination of the actors' talents and her care in helping them find ways to express the lines, and make them clear--it was all there.

And though I'd read the play a couple of times and seen that run-through, it was only at this performance that I realized what a good play it was. It has its limited focus, which not everyone will agree with. But the writing is splendid. The director and cast really brought out its virtues. Judging from the reviews of the original production and one or two others I read about, I wouldn't be surprised if this is the best production of this play there's been so far anywhere.

I won't say the acting itself was better--I didn't see those other productions. But the effect of those productions was, according to what was written about them, nothing like this one. Even though this is a university production, and brilliant professional actors might find additional nuances in these characters, this production works as a whole in ways that (according to those reviews) it doesn't seem the others did.

This was Missy Hopper's last performance as an HSU student, and it's a great little part for her to go out on--a carefully crafted, expressive, funny character part (if you can call playing a former shepherdess who is now a recovering cow a character part). (And that's another weird thing--I've seen Missy and other HSU students in several parts, but have never written about them, because they were all HSU shows that I can't write about.)

Johanna Hembry also has a particular take on the character of Athena--it works because she has to convey a lot of attitude and the character as a whole in her short time on stage. Especially important when you're the only representative of the gods who have been manipulating people for decades--raping them, sending them off to wars, hiding and duplicating them, blowing them off course on their way home.

Erik Rhea plays Helen's husband, the one she is waiting for. His scene and his character depends on his interaction with Helen, and that worked very well that first night--it was moody, funny, troubling, and moving in turns. Leslie Ostrom as the servant is on stage longer than anyone but Helen, and she has several long speeches, which now don't seem like long speeches. Her character is a storyteller, and naturally acts out her stories as she continues her duties. Very effective. As I noted before, they all have stage presence, but their performances are also disciplined and authentic.

As Helen, Darcy Daughtry is onstage for the entire play--all but a few brief seconds. It all depends on her. And she's just wonderful. Theatregoers hereabouts have seen her in small roles, but this is her breakout performance: a star is born.

We follow the moods of her character, and we may judge Helen in different ways--is she superficial, imperious, ironic, childlike, knowing, self-deceiving? Yes. And by the final scenes, she is really, really moving. Darcy carries the early scenes and takes you into the play with her charm. But by the end, she is in every moment, and you are with her.

I'm not a big fan of the Gist theatre--the compressed amphitheatre seating is weird and disorienting, and the room is usually too warm. The stage area can be quite big, and some productions have used that potential to good effect, others not so much. But this production uses the stage's ability to be small, and intimate. That absolutely works for this production. Being able to look into Darcy's eyes in that final scene made it very moving.

Darcy was the outsider, a non-HSU person, but she not only overcame that, she set the tone for everyone else by being prepared, working hard and working well with everyone. It's great that she got this opportunity to carry a play, and we're fortunate that she wanted to try.

Now my big worry is whether there's going to be room for me to see it again in its final weekend. HSU shows normally draw bigger houses the second weekend (most run Thursday-Saturday for two successive weekends), and a couple of other events on campus last weekend definitely suppressed the usual attendance. So I expect it's going to be a big, crowded weekend, and I can't see depriving someone who hasn't seen it at all. But I heard that one of the crew said the Saturday performance was especially good, and I want to see what they've made of it. I've seen several HSU shows opening and then closing night--it's always interesting, theatrically and emotionally.

Look at that, I've called actors by their first names. So I guess this does turn out to be a non-professional review, which in some ways is a big relief.

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