San Francisco's EXIT Theatre has been producing DIVAfest since 2002, a festival of new plays and other performance pieces by and about women. But the 12th annual DIVAfest comes at a particularly fortuitous time, when the theater community at large is deeply embroiled in a discussion about the underrepresentation of women in theater -- too few roles for women in the plays being produced, too few of which are written by women. You can catch up on the discussion on blogs such as Works by Women San Francisco and the Counting Actors Project.
This year's fest is an eclectic mix. There are just two full plays: Melissa Fall's black comedy You're Going to Bleed and The Helen Project, Megan Cohen and Amy Clare Tasker's deconstruction of the myth of Helen of Troy. Other components include the burlesque cabaret Rebel Without a Bra, a work-in-progress series called DIVAs Tell All, a Performance Art Showcase and Songwriter Saturdays, plus a feminist theater symposium, a gallery show and more.
Calling The Helen Project a play doesn't seem quite right. Cohen and Tasker describe it as a "Build-Your-Own-Helen-Play Kit," a "modular text" made up of fragments patched together into an hour of overlapping monologues from the point of view of Helen of Troy. The first edition was unveiled on the first weekend of the festival, May 10-11, 2013 and a completely different version will be shown two weeks later, on May 24-25. The project also exists online as a piece of interactive fiction that you choose your own route through by clicking on keywords.
By way of full disclosure, I should say that I wrote a very different play about Helen that will have a staged reading as part of the SF Olympians festival this November, and Cohen is also part of that same festival, writing about Odysseus.
Directed by Tasker, the live version of The Helen Project is set in a bedroom populated by five women who are all Helen, different versions of her at different points in her story. One of them wears a red dress; the others are all in gray shirts and blue jeans. None of them look anything alike, which seems appropriate for the archetype of the most beautiful woman in the world. Sarah Moser, the one in the dress, is the Face, who speaks primarily in lines from Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus ("Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships") and watches the other Helens very closely, sometimes sadly, sometimes with sly amusement. She seems to represent the myth of Helen, the idea of her, while the others are rooted in particular moments before and after the Trojan War.
Lily Yang (a former coworker of mine at Theatre Bay Area) is Helen the night before she abandons her husband and children to run off with Paris, the handsome prince of Troy. She's nervous and arrogant, resentful of her husband for neglecting her, of her new lover for leaving her to do all the work of packing to deliver herself to him, and even of her baby for making her choose whether to take him with her or leave him behind. Roneet Aliza Rahamim is Helen on the first night of the Trojan War, and Misti Rae Boettiger is her on the last night of the war, ten years later. Both are terrified, First Night Helen in a state of suicidal panic, and Last Night Helen frantically calculating which victorious army she needs to cheer in order to survive. Most entertaining of all is Ariane Owens as Helen returned to her husband in Sparta after the war, defiantly unrepentant as she lists her supposed crimes.
All of this is told in shards of monologue as Helen is left alone with her thoughts overnight. For the most part, the Helens don't interact but wander around each other. There are a couple of times when one Helen will clutch another, trying to recapture that time in her life in the most literal, physical way. Some of the speeches are funny, such as Owens' Unpacking Helen with her blasé defensiveness. "Yeah, everybody died," she says. "I didn't kill any of them." Most of the soliloquies are much more tragic and overwrought. Some are heartbreakingly detailed, as two of the Helens describe their children's individual personalities in detail, while others are abstract and poetic and harder to maintain interest in.
Because of the shifting text, the show was performed with scripts in hand on the first night of the festival. There's something that feels unformed and amorphous about the evening as a whole; many of the speeches are interesting, but how they play off each other is undefined, particularly in the case of the always watching, seldom speaking Helen in the red dress. There's something that feels resonant and right about representing Helen through fragments. She's a figure who's almost never looked at straight on as a character in her own right, but always seen through others' eyes for what she represents. And as frustrating as it may be, maybe there's something appropriate too about the pieces not quite coming together into a coherent portrait. That's Helen all over.
The Helen Project runs through May 25, 2013 at the EXIT Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit divafest.info.
All photos by Amy Clare Tasker.