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‘Helen’ sails to island with tales of Troy

An acclaimed one-woman production comes to Island Theater.

Helen’s beauty is famous, but her personality remains speculative.

Her face, according to Greek myth, may have launched a thousand ships and set in motion the destruction of Troy – yet the inner life of this symbol of female pulchritude remains enigmatic.

Writing on the tabula rasa that is the mythic Helen became the artistic focus of Chicago author and actor Megan Wells, whose original one-woman show, “Helen’s Troy,” makes a Pacific Northwest debut here Nov. 12.

“My research on this project became an archeological quest to enflesh the few uncovered bones of this infamous character,” Wells said.

Wells’ re-creation of Helen and her own version of the story of the 10-year Trojan war is something of an epic, itself; it took two years to develop and then polish in performances at home concerts, colleges and coffeehouses.

Last summer, “Helen’s Troy” played for seven weeks to appreciative audiences in Chicago’s Oak Park Festival Theater, and excerpts were performed last week at Miller Links performance art space in the same city.

A professional actress and storyteller who holds a master of fine arts in directing from Illinois State University, Wells has directed a Chicago production of Joe Orton’s “A Ruffian on the Stair” and other shows, and played Estelle in Sartre’s “No Exit.”

But it was when she created “The Cenci,” her original adaptation of a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem, that Wells developed her own form of theater, merging the roles of author, actress and storyteller.

Wells applied her blended theater to re-invent the Helen of Greek myth.

Married to Menelaus, a Spartan, Helen is kidnapped by Paris, who carries her off to Troy.

Menelaus invokes a promise given by Helen’s former suitors to defend her honor, and their armada of 1,000 ships lays siege to Troy.

In Wells’ version, scenes of carnage are spliced with Helen’s response to her personal circumstances.

“Among the pieces of Helen strewn across history, I heard the whisperings of an entirely different epic,” Wells said. “At the heart of Helen’s story is a marriage. The Trojan War is the background. When one is willing to see beyond the drumbeats, heros and bloodshed of war, the story of Helen’s heart unfolds.”

The play about a woman’s point of view is also a bouquet to a friendship between women.

Wells’ play comes to Bainbridge through islander Linda Sterling, who first met Wells in Chicago 22 years ago when Sterling was an undergraduate theater student at Chicago’s Illinois Wesleyan University.

The two became friends and collaborated professionally.

Sterling, who played a role in the Island Theater production of “The Vagina Monologues” directed by Kate Carruthers last summer, brought “Helen’s Troy” to Carruthers’ attention.

After reading the script – and the stellar reviews for Wells’ Chicago production – the Island Theater group decided to step into a new role as producer to bring the show to Bainbridge.

“I feel I was being presented with Helen in all her complexity and inconsistency, the paradoxes that reveal that this icon is very human,” Carruthers said. “This is a little different, a new role for us to be a producer of a show, but the reviews of her out of Chicago are absolutely stunning.

“This is a kind of theater we haven’t seen here. Island Theater is about taking on new things.”

Sterling also helps bring the current production to the stage as its director. Once again, traditional notions of theater are expanded, with Sterling’s directorial role shading into collaboration, since the actress penned the material.

“(The form) is definitely something new,” Sterling said, “and not only because it’s from Helen’s point of view, but there is the element of storytelling, since Megan plays 20 characters.”

When Helen comes alive on the Playhouse stage this weekend, the centuries between the Trojan War and contemporary America should be eclipsed, Wells believes, by the universality of the experience of “a young woman whose life was shaped by a dangerous mix of politics, sexuality and destiny,” a tension between external forces and one’s inner life as germane today as it was in 1200 B.C.E.

“I love telling this story,” Wells said. “It’s a Rorschach of the human heart.”

* * * * *

The Helenic ideal

See the face that launched 1,000 ships:

• Island Theatre and the Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council present the Pacific Northwest premiere of “Helen’s Troy” 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12-13; and 3 p.m. Nov. 14 at the Playhouse. “Helen’s Troy” stars Chicago playwright/actor Megan Wells in her own original work, directed by islander Linda Sterling. Tickets are $18 for adults, $12 for seniors and $9 for students, available at the Playhouse box office. For more information call 842-8569 or see www.meganwells.com. “Helen’s Troy” is recommended for high school age and older.

• Meet Wells at a special reception 6:30-8 p.m. Nov. 11, at a private home and enjoy light refreshments and no-host wine bar. Donation of $25 for adults; $20 seniors; and $15 students includes a ticket to the performance. To reserve a space at this event, call 842-1301.

• Wells presents storytelling performances and workshops for children and adults at Bainbridge public library: Middle School Scary Stories Workshop 4:30-5:45 p.m. Nov. 9; Family Storytelling Performance, 4:30-5:30 p.m. Nov. 10; and The Master Class Workshop - From page to stage. 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nov. 13. For details and reservations, call Island Theatre at 842-1301 or email BIAHC at biahc@artshum.org.

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