‘Helen.’ Review: A Restless Heroine Tired of Abiding by Gender Roles

The play is called “Helen.,” as in Helen of Troy, but her twin sister, Klaitemestra, is the one who steals the show.

You remember Klaitemestra, albeit maybe by a different spelling: the grief-enraged mother of Iphigenia, who is sacrificed to the gods by her father, Agamemnon — a betrayal that Klaitemestra avenges by murdering him upon his return from the Trojan War.

So dramatic, isn’t it? Not like the humdrum contemporary-classical domesticity that Helen, Klaitemestra and their older sister, Timandra, inhabit at the start of Caitlin George’s “Helen.,” a new twist on the ancient tale in the downstairs theater at La MaMa, in Manhattan’s East Village.

Yet for a long time, the bored and restless Helen (Lanxing Fu) is the only one who has a problem with their existence. Timandra (Melissa Coleman-Reed) is placidly happy to have a husband who brings her coffee in the morning and puts socks on her feet when she gets chilly, while Klaitemestra (Grace Bernardo) is so hot for Agamemnon (Jonathan Taikina Taylor) that she can barely contain herself.

“That man is melt-in-your-mouth gods-be-damned-licious,” she says. “I love every little speck of him.”

The arc of their coupledom — sexual pyrotechnics, cooling affection, grisly end — is the clearest, most affecting element of Violeta Picayo’s incohesive production for the SuperGeographics, presented by La MaMa in association with En Garde Arts.

That is unfortunate news for Helen but also for the audience, because this is her story — a comic counter to the legend that she was abducted from her husband, Menelaus (Jackie Rivera), by the handsome Paris (Taylor), whereupon men waged the Trojan War over her. In “Helen.,” the catalyst for her fleeing is her own inchoate yearning.

“I want to go on an adventure,” she tells her sisters. “I can’t stay here. I can’t.”

Spurred on by Eris (Constance Strickland), the god of discord and the show’s gold-clad narrator, Helen leaves Menelaus and their daughter, meets Paris and takes up with him. (Costumes are by James Schuette.) But the brothers Menelaus and Agamemnon cannot grasp that her absence from home and family is voluntary, the way it might be for a man.

“One time right after our daughter was born,” Helen says, “Menelaus disappeared for eight months. Never said anything. Although, to be fair, he did leave a note. ‘Gone out, comma, for glory. Kiss, kiss.’ I had no idea where he was. Then without warning he just rocked up one day and asked what was for dinner.”

The struggle here is between a woman’s self-determination and a man’s entitled possessiveness — a world-shaping dynamic rooted in traditional gender roles. This staging mutes that essential resonance, though, with a clownish Menelaus who needs to but never does evoke masculinity. If Menelaus isn’t tethered to some kind of reality, neither is Helen’s stifling marriage. That undermines the urgency of her quest for a fulfilling life.

“Helen.,” whose heightened tone sometimes recalls the plays of Sarah Ruhl and Charles Mee, is ultimately overcrowded, and the production largely lacks the ache that George has encoded in the comedy.

But it does have that bleakly disillusioned Klaitemestra — and her elegantly choreographed, marriage-ending murder scene.

Through Oct. 29 at La MaMa, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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