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Helen: What If?
WordsAndPictures: 20% Theatre Company play imagines a different life for Helen of Troy
Gretchen Emo is Helen in 20% Theatre Company's performances.
by Anne Hamre

My dreams are over, I have ceased to cry
Against the fate that made men love my mouth
And left their spirits all too deaf to hear
The little songs that echoed through my soul.

-from the poem "Helen of Troy," Sara Teasdale (1884-1933)

She's been the subject of an epic 1956 Hollywood film, a 2003 TV miniseries, a 1975 John Cale album and a 1988 tune by Robert Plant (sample lyric: "She walks like a gunslinger"). Now, thanks to 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities, Helen of Troy takes to a local stage-in a play that presents her story, according to the director, "as she would tell it."

According to Co-Artistic Director and Founder Claire Avitabile, 20% Theatre Company gets its name from a 2002 report by the New York Council on the Arts, showing that only about one-fifth of professional theater artists are women-despite the fact that women submit more than half of the resumes. The company's mission is to produce new, progressive work by female and transgender artists.

"As a company, we like to present alternative ideas to the public: 'What if this happened instead?'" Avitabile said. "Helen" poses just such a thought experiment: What if she never made it to Troy?

The play, written by Ellen McLaughlin, imagines what Helen's life would have been like, trapped for 17 years in a four-star hotel overlooking Egypt's pyramids, with almost no link to the outside world except TV's Weather Channel.

"She's been trapped by her own myth, and has spent her energy and time and focus on maintaining the image or version of herself that has been created to fulfill the expectations, desires and needs of other people," said Director Leah Adcock-Starr. "She needs to tell her own story. We all do."

Adcock-Starr was in college when she stumbled across McLaughlin's collection of Greek plays at a used bookstore, and "fell in love with McLaughlin's poetry and wit." From the collection, "Helen" emerged as a favorite.

"I finally received that glimpse of an incredibly complicated human woman who was as captured by her myth as I seemed to be," Adcock-Starr said. "The play made me laugh out loud, and it made me think about beauty and war and love and stories, and it made me feel things for these people who are literally the stuff of legends."

The theater company wrestled with "why does it matter" questions: Why this play, and why now?

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The director noted that "Helen" is a play about war-why wars are fought, how they're lost and won, and their cost. "Helen's war, the Trojan War, we discover is being fought for an illusion-a lie," Adcock-Starr said. "It's a war begun under false pretenses that exacts a devastating toll. That's so relevant it gives me chills."

It's also a play about women, beauty, body image and celebrity-and as a woman who, like all women, "is inundated every moment of every day with images of so-called beauty. That resonates with me," Adcock-Starr added.

The play has a "feminist vibe," Avitabile said. Some of it comes out in Helen's conversations with her maidservant. Then there's the feeling you get at the end-after dramatic upheaval and a plot twist we won't spoil-that this woman is not a victim, but a survivor. As Avitabile put it: "In the end, she's gonna be just fine."

"The women in this play are strong, smart and wonderfully human-even the goddess," Adcock-Starr said. "It's a play about a woman discovering her own power and learning to tell her own story."

What: Helen
When: January 28-February 12, 2011
Where: Gremlin Theatre, 2400 University Ave. W., St. Paul
Cost: $12-$20 sliding scale and $10 for students
FFI: www.tctwentypercent

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