“Nothing ever happens!” wails the title character in actor-playwright Ellen McLaughlin’s “Helen.”
She’s wandering around her hotel room in Egypt, swatting flies.
Lots does happen, though, in this funny, poetic and thought-provoking play. “Helen” is a departure, for Theatre of Yugen, the tiny company that’s been known for years for staging comedy and drama, both Eastern and Western, in traditional Japanese theatrical styles such as Noh and Kyogen. Interestingly, though, founder Yuriko Doi’s first production was the Greek classic “Elektra.”
An adaptation of Euripides’ Greek tragi-comedy of the same name, about the beautiful Helen of Troy, McLaughlin’s play has a modern, feminist perspective, examining the ways that women’s physical appearances can deny them their own true selves.
Helen suspects the Trojan War, of which she was ostensibly the cause — it’s said she left her husband, King Menelaus, to run off with Paris of Troy — is still ongoing, but the TV won’t give her any news.
Helen in fact did not run off with Paris — she may have flirted with him; sex with Menelaus wasn’t great, says McLaughlin’s Helen — but the trickster gods whisked her off to this hotel room and set up a series of compliant doppelgangers, or phantom beauties, in her place. She’s been waiting here for 17 years for her husband to rescue her.
McLaughlin’s play, like Euripides’, is an anti-war play; it’s also hilarious and has lots to say about the ways that women, especially women in the public eye, are denied their own humanity.
“Helen” plays out on an elegantly designed set by Randy Wong-Westbrooke and is performed by a multicultural cast under Yugen artistic associate Shannon R. Davis’ lively and carefully calibrated direction.
Adriane Deane is a graceful Helen, easily negotiating the play’s comedy as well as its quieter, deeply felt moments.
As Helen’s servant, Leticia Duarte is a solid, down-to-earth presence, a good contrast to Helen’s fragility and despair, but is burdened, by the script, with a few too many long “stories” (Helen demands storytelling); neither Duarte nor Davis has figured out a way to truly theatricalize the tales.
At last the long-suffering Helen receives visitors: a dim-bulb Io (an awkward Helen Wu), recently recovered from being turned into a cow, and, in an especially entertaining scene, Athena (a wonderfully gleeful Stefani Potter).
Finally Menelaus himself appears (an affecting, vulnerable Steven Flores) — but not to save Helen in this version.
It’s a touching, hopeful finale.
Presented by Theatre of Yugen
Where: Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays, 1:30 and/or 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1:30 p.m. Sundays; closes April 27
Tickets: $15 to $40
Contact: (415) 621-0507, theatreofyugen.org