Ellen McLaughlin's Helen, a new postmodern take on characters of the Trojan War, will open at the Public Theater April 8 after previews from March 19 at The Public Theater. Two-time Tony Award-winner Donna Murphy stars in the title role.
Tony Kushner, who saw Ellen McLaughlin star in his Angels in America on Broadway, directs the new work, which focuses on a favorite subject of McLaughlin's: the Battle of Troy. Helen is about the woman whose face launched those thousand ships in the first place. In McLaughlin's world, however, Murphy plays a woman not of Troy, but Cairo, downing protein shakes and having facials. "The legendary Helen spends the Trojan War stranded in a hotel room in Egypt, baffled by her odd escape from history," according to The Public's production notes. "Longing to be returned to her own myth, she swats flies, has her nails done and channel surfs, searching for news of the war for which she will be blamed." It's billed as "a comedy of consequence."
An earlier McLaughlin play, Iphigenia and Other Daughters, which played Off Broadway's CSC, was a postmodern look at Agamemnon's wife and his daughters, including the title character, who was sacrificed to the gods so that Agamemnon's forces might sail to and engage rival Troy.
Donna Murphy has been little-seen on stage since winning back-to-back Tony Awards for Passion and The King and I in the mid-90s. Many thought her next role would be in the long-planned Broadway revival of Wonderful Town, a show she starred in at Encores!
Speaking to Playbill On-Line about her new role, Murphy said, "Well, it is Helen, but it's Ellen's version of Helen, which is based on Euripides' treatment of the story. He wrote two plays which dealt with Helen. He wrote The Trojan Women and Helen, which is the one this play is based on. In that version, Helen doesn't go to Troy. She is plucked out of her circumstances by the goddess Hera and brought to Egypt, where she waited for Menalaus to get her. A phantom Helen was created and sent to Troy, unbeknownst to everyone else — they think it's Helen. But she's sitting in a hotel room in Cairo for 17 years! So, it is the Helen of that time. It's not a contemporary parallel. But there are a lot of anachronistic elements. It deals with themes of duality, of dual universes and the twin nature of things." Asked if she was unnerved at the prospect of playing the famously beautiful Helen, Murphy said the assignment had indeed filled her with trepidation. "I'm wary when I'm asked to play a character that is referred to as beautiful. That is not something that I'm ever comfortable with. For this show, we did a photo session for the poster before we started rehearsals. I remember being photographed as Fosca for Passion with Richard Avedon. And it was an amazing photo session. And it was exhausting. But, the Helen photo session was more exhausting — holding up my own conviction about looking beautiful was just ridiculously exhausting and stressful for me. It was much easier being photographed as someone thought of as...a dog."
The Helen cast also includes Johanna Day as Io, Phylicia Rashad as Athena and the ever-busy Denis O'Hare as Menalaus. Mary Louise Wilson was originally scheduled to play the Servant, but owing to a scheduling conflict with the new dates, she's stepped out and The Play About the Baby's Marian Seldes has stepped in.
Day recently originated the role of Claire in Broadway's Proof on Broadway, while Rashad was seen Off Broadway last year in The Roundabout Theatre Company's Blue and O'Hare last performed in Roundabout's Major Barbara at the American Airlines Theatre.
Helen is Kushner's New York City directing debut.
Tickets are $45. The Public Theater's Martinson Hall is at 425 Lafayette Street. For information, call (212) 239-6200 or visit publictheater.org.
To view Playbill On-Line's Brief Encounter interview with Donna Murphy, click here.