By Carley Stavis
In and of itself, the Mainstage Theater at the UC Santa Cruz Theater Arts Center isn’t much to look at.
Its decor consists of row after row of maroon chairs and cement walls lined with extensive metal piping covered in chipped paint.
A spare piano and a single, lonely wooden table stand listlessly beside the stage. But next week, all of that will change.
On Feb. 29, “Helen of Egypt,” an alternate take on Euripides’ classic Greek drama, will take hold of the stage and fill the theater with song, dance and a massive Egyptian pyramid.
The play, written by UC Santa Cruz literature professor Mary-Kay Gamel and directed by Mike Ryan, takes a different look at the story of the woman who — supposedly — launched a thousand ships to war.
Though the play might initially sound like a crafty disguise for a Greek history lesson, the songs, dance numbers and constant changes in mood will keep attendees on the edges of their seats.
“The show is going to be really fun,” said Remy Jewell, a fourth-year literature major playing Helen. “There is a lot of humor, and a lot of action. The show moves drastically from tragedy to comedy to drama, and this trip is exciting.”
Though an expensive choice, and one often omitted in productions of Greek plays, the use of song and dance numbers, Gamel said, was vital.
“Song and dance are crucial elements of Greek drama, and Euripides in particular was known for his use of music, yet modern productions rarely include it because it is challenging and expensive.”
Composer Philip Collins, along with UCSC alumna and choreographer Sommer Ulrickson, will bring song and dance to the production.
Dancing and music aside, the heart of the play revolves around a love triangle involving the infamous Helen, her beloved husband Menelaos and the Trojan prince Amir.
Equally important but sometimes overlooked themes that the show will highlight are the implications of war, such as fighting for something intangible or even nonexistent.
These topics are central to the story and come at a very appropriate time, Gamel said.
“The most obvious reason [for producing the play now] is the timeliness of fighting a terrible war for something which didn’t exist,” she said.
Gamel pointed to the lyrics of an included song as an example:
“One thing we do know: those people are wrong
who think violence will settle a score / Contests of blood have one outcome / ruthless, unending war.”
“Helen” could cause attendees to really think about both ancient and modern society and to draw connections between the two.
“I hope the audience examines western egocentricity and the parallels of cultural arrogance between ancient Greece and contemporary America,” Ryan said. “This play asks a lot of questions about what we can know about the reasons for going to war and, in light of the fact that we are often in the dark, what our personal responsibility becomes when [we learn] that the reasons we thought, or hoped, we had no longer exist.”
The show runs Feb. 29 through March 2 and March 6 through 9. It promises to entertain, provoke and relate.
“[The original play] was written thousands of years ago, but the topics discussed are all things with which we still grapple today: love, sex, religion, betrayal, truth,” Jewell said. “The topics are everlasting … things that have the capability to fill us with joy – and to fill us with sorrow.”
_UCSC students with valid ID are admitted free. General admission is $14, admission for seniors is $11 and admission for students without ID is $11. To purchase tickets or gather more information, visit santacruztickets.com or call (831) 459-215._