Theater on an epic scale

For its 20th anniversary, SRT celebrates legendary women

Hecuba is a fallen woman. Seeking vengeance after the death of her children, she's a former queen turned slave, following a disastrous war. Helen is a famous beauty; the "face that launched a thousand ships" that caused that very conflict. In Stanford Repertory Theater's new production of "Hecuba/Helen," the two legendary ladies are played by one actor.

"Hecuba/Helen" consists of two plays by Euripides, a mashup of ancient Greek masterpieces adapted by SRT Artistic Director Rush Rehm and actor Courtney Walsh, who plays the titular characters. The production is part of SRT's 20th-anniversary festival, titled "Nevertheless They Persisted," which connects the world of classic Greek drama to the current #MeToo movement by showcasing work with a focus on strong female characters.

"I was really intrigued by the idea of juxtaposing two epic female characters and finding their reflections in each other," said Walsh, who has worked with Rehm and SRT on numerous projects for more than a decade and brings her two dogs, Winnie and Daisy, along to most rehearsals, where they serve as unofficial mascots and therapy pets when the cast needs stress relief.

Evoking the iconic tragedy and comedy theater masks, promotional materials for "Hecuba/Helen" depict Walsh looking downtrodden and sorrowful on the "Hecuba" half and glamorous and smiling on the "Helen" side. Though Hecuba and Helen are in some ways opposites, Walsh has found parallels in their characters.

"They're both women who are vastly underestimated by the people around them," she said. "Hecuba is supposed to be this defeated queen who has no power in the world anymore, but when her children are killed she finds the resources to exact her own revenge, even as a slave with no status." Helen, looked upon as either a victim with a pretty face but little brain or a femme fatale, "ends up being the one with the smarts and the nerve to figure out how to get her and her husband, who's supposed to be the hero, back home. So they rise to their occasions in really different ways," she said.

Euripides' original "Hecuba" ends with the protagonist being transformed into an animal. In SRT's version, she is transformed into Helen. Putting the two stories together with the same actor playing the leads "throws interesting shadows on both characters, both plays, the whole history of the Trojan War and the whole way that you want to understand the female experience of that," Rehm said.

Though both plays share the same author, they differ in style. Calling "Hecuba" a "very dark, straight-up espresso shot of Greek tragedy," Walsh said she's taken inspiration from "The Handmaid's Tale" for her first character. For "Helen," which has a more lyrical feel and more comic moments, Walsh has been watching movie star Ava Gardner in her 1950s films.

Walsh and Rehm hope potential audience members won't be turned off by any misconceptions about classic drama born from unpleasant high-school assignments.

"There's such an explosion again in superhero movies and if you like that, this would be of interest because this is the same epic scale," Walsh said. Far from being a dry or long-winded, the production is "epic in scale, not epic in length," Rehm noted, as the total running time is under two hours and features live, original music, dance and vivid visual design.

"It's why you should get off the couch and come to the theater. You can't create that on film. It's uniquely theatrical," Walsh said, calling the production more akin to a concert or a church service than a film or television show. "There aren't many things we do in our lives anymore that bring us together in a room with a bunch of strangers experiencing the same story but in different ways, potentially, in the presence of the people delivering the story."

In the ancient world, theater was performed in open-air amphitheaters, lit by the sun, with the sights and sounds of the natural world ever present. Though "Hecuba/Helen" will be performed in the black-box theater at Roble Gym, Rehm said he and his team have tried to bring a sense of the outdoor experience inside, with projections of the sky and the sea. They hope the design "gives the audience a sense of the bigger story, of how this stuff is moving across the universe, in a way," he said. "There are extraordinary ways in which the play speaks beyond the little story of the people."

In addition to "Hecuba/Helen," the festival also features a free Monday-night film series, which includes work by Greek director Michael Cacoyannis and German director Margarethe von Trotta, an all-day symposium on depictions of the Trojan War in art and literature, and a summer-long Stanford Continuing Studies course on Euripides.

Rehm, a Stanford professor of classics and theater, is an expert on Greek tragedy.

"He writes books on it, he teaches it ... . It's an amazing training opportunity for anybody in the cast who works with him." Walsh said. After their Stanford run, he and Walsh will be taking the show back to its roots in Athens, Greece, where they will present it with a Greek cast.

By calling the festival "Nevertheless They Persisted" (a paraphrase of "Nevertheless, she persisted," which has become a feminist slogan after it was applied to Senator Elizabeth Warren), SRT is clearly making some connections to today's political climate, including the #MeToo movement, gender inequality, resistance and the ethics of war and nationalism. But it's not a straightforward allegory. Rather, it's a lens through which to consider issues that have been present in society for millenia. Euripides himself was writing about a mythic past, distant from his present. The definition of a classic, Rehm said, is "something that keeps passing down the problem. It doesn't solve it, it gives you another angle."

"The heroics are not clear cut," Walsh added. "It's really complicated and everybody has a point of view that's valid and worth protecting, at least to them, so it's great fodder for conversation."

What: "Hecuba/Helen."

Where: Roble Studio Theater, 375 Santa Teresa St., Stanford.

When: July 26-Aug. 19; Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Cost: $15-25.

Info: For tickets and information on the entire "Nevertheless They Persisted" festival, go to SRT.

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