Review: Helen (Vintage Theater Collective)

     
     

Vividly adept ensemble reveals the emptiness of beauty

     
     

Bergen Anderson (Servant) and Katy Carolina Collins (Helen) in a scene from Vintage Theater Collective's "Hellen" by Ellen McLaughlin.

  
Vintage Theater Collective presents
  
Helen
   
Written by Ellen McLaughlin
Directed by Kelley Ristow
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through May 25  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

All I know about the Gods is the anguish of my own body.      –Io

Nothing should come between success and the intense wisdom of playwright Ellen McLaughlin’s Helen, produced by the Vintage Theater Collective at Strawdog Theatre’s space. Taking off from Euripides’ play by the same name, Helen investigates the troubling and enigmatic power that beauty maintains over women and men, not to mention its interplay with war, fame, fate, and loss. The legendary Greek beauty whose face launched a thousand ships finds herself stuck in a three-star hotel in Egypt, transported there by the gods to wait out the end of the Trojan War–at least until her husband Menelaus arrives to take her home. Meanwhile, to fool everyone and keep the war going at Troy, the gods have replaced her with an eidolon, an ancient Greek word that means both “phantom” and “image.”

Vintage Theater Collective - Helen poster“I do worry about the world. The splitting of image from being doesn’t bode well,” says Helen (Katy Caroline Collins) to the Servant (Bergen Anderson) of the hotel who perpetually offers her manicures and facials to pass the time. To be in a desired body or not to be in one—that is the question. Director Kelly Ristow assembles an excellent and intuitively adept ensemble cast to take on McLaughlin’s heady and thoroughly philosophical script. This they achieve with a lightness and ease that, nevertheless, nails some pretty dark and powerful revelations.

Collins holds the center with her bored, frustrated, yet quintessentially entitled heroine, solidly elucidating the tendency for perfect beauty to be emptied of everything pertaining to the self, flattened to a reflective surface for the projections of others. Her Waiting for Godot-style role is vitally flanked by the vivid performances of Miriam Mintz as Io and Emily Shain as Athena. Charmingly self-effacing, Io arrives in Helen’s room after being agelessly driven across the Mediterranean by Hera’s gadfly, still recovering her woman’s body after its transformation into a cow. “It made a kind of awful sense,” she says of Zeus’ attempt to hide her from Hera through the transformation, “because it arrived at a time when my body wasn’t my own anymore.” Of being at the mercy of the gods she can only surmise, “I guess I have to think of my suffering as sacred—it’s the only thing they ever gave me.”

Alternately, Athena shows up in chic black, callously glib about the Trojan War, which, as she announces to Helen, has already been over for 7 years. Humanity is a curiosity for the gods because we, unlike them, experience death. But their aspirations for the war to be a compelling spectacle were soon worn out by its boring 10-year siege of Troy. “We lost respect for you guys. You looked like a bunch of beetles scrambling around on a dung heap. When all is said and done, death is pretty boring.” To her credit, Shain blithely tosses off these lines with all the effortlessness as a socialite at a cocktail party.

If there is one snag in the fabric of McLaughlin’s script, it seems to be its over-reliance on the Servant’s storytelling to provide context for Helen’s next set of choices or emotional journey. Also, Jeff Trainor makes a terribly sympathetic war-torn Menelaus, yet his arrival in Helen’s room seems almost anti-climatic. McLaughlin has brought up and fleshed the conundrums involved over women being adored for their physical appearance–yet still having very little control or agency in their lives. She doesn’t seem to know how to wrap up what she’s plunged into. A certain form of immortality is held out to Helen but that hardly seems to compensate for the life the gods have taken from her. Perhaps we will have to wait for the next great beauty of Western culture to have independence, resourcefulness and self-possession. That would certainly be a refreshing change from her literary predecessors.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Jeff Trainor (Menelaus) and Katy Carolina Collins (Helen) in a scene from Vintage Theater Collective's "Hellen" by Ellen McLaughlin.

Vintage Theater Collective’s Helen continues through May 25th, with perfomances Mondays-Wednesdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 1pm. Performances are located at the Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway).  Tickets cost $20, and are available by phone (214-725-5217) or online at vintagetheatercollective.com.
  
  

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Review: Letters/X (Apollo Theater Chicago)

     
     

‘Anti-Valentine’s cabaret’ comes on too strong, but not without laughs

  
  

Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, and Anthony Roberts in 'Letters/X' at Apollo Studio Theater in Chicago.

    
Apollo Theater presents
  
Letters/X
  
Adapted by Anthony Roberts
Directed by
Matthew Zaradich
at
Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln (map)
through March 12  | 
tickets: $10-$12  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Only in the emotional vacuum of a break-up does it seem like a good idea to e-mail unsolicited diary entries to your married ex-boyfriend.

So goes one hilarious story of dejection in Letters/X, Chicago’s annual cabaret devoted to performing real-life exchanges about love gone sour. Currently in its eighth incarnation, the Shadenfreude slam is currently performing its first run in its new venue at the cozy, well-suited Apollo Studio Theater.

Dressed mostly in V-Day red, white and black, The young five-person ensemble (Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, Anthony Roberts) presents submitted texts as monologues and songs by adaptor Anthony Roberts with direction by Matthew Zaradich.

You can’t ask for better inspiration. Break-up letters are a special brew of bad ideas, written by the emotionally compromised for reasons beyond their better sensibilities. And–surely to Letters/X‘s mirth–the emergence of text messages and Facebook posts as forms of legitimate romantic communication have only grown the broken heart rant supply. After all, unlike their handwritten counterparts, those digital venting-outlets share a brand of immediacy that outperform the body’s rate of metabolizing the alcohol that usually provokes angsty letter-writing in the first place.

Sometimes the performed letters aren’t break-up notes at all, but instead love propositions that are so bad they accomplish the same task. It all makes for superb material for cathartic, cringe-worthy comedy.

When the creative team here trusts that material, it does.

Too often, though, it seems like they feel the need to heighten it. These comedians have talent, but for some reason it gets veiled behind loud, cartoonish facades–never so much so to wholly smother the risible material, but just enough to become grating (the ladies are a little less guilty than the gents). A crank-it-to-eleven style may play well in a 1,000-person proscenium, but the Apollo Studio seats about 50. When good jokes are performed at you instead of to you, they feel less funny as a result.

Fortunately, there are segments where the comics subdue their inner-Screech and relax, bringing out the sensitivity and irony of the monologues. In response, the laughs become easier and more genuine.

The songs too are hit and miss. Numbers like “Psycho Hose Beast” don’t offer much more than their title, but others like “Brokenhearted Anthem” are surprisingly sweet and catchy. The music interludes help keep the pace brisk and the action engaging.

Conceptually, Letters/X is gold, and I hope it remains a Chicago institution–albeit a better tweaked one. This year’s presentation is a satisfying if warbly song for the newly single. 

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, and Anthony Roberts in 'Letters/X' at Apollo Studio Theater in Chicago.

Ensemble: Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, and Anthony Roberts.   

Production: Jessica Jane Childs (producer), Stephanie Clark (stage manager), Anthony Roberts (producer/adaptor & composer), Jessica Roberts (lighting design), Matthew Zaradich (producer/director).