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Ancient text translated for modern theater production of Helen

  • Photo of Mallory Caillaud-Jones as Helen
  • The cast of "Helen" performing during a rehearsal.
  • Diane Rayor, professor of classics, revising the "Helen" script with a student.
  • Diane Rayor oversees a rehearsal of "Helen."

Posted on March 14, 2017

As the legend is told, Helen of Sparta was the most beautiful woman in all of Greece. "The face that launched a thousand ships" fled to Troy with Paris, son of the Trojan king Priam, to escape her husband Menelaus. This act of treachery instigated the 10-year Trojan War.

But, what if Helen never fled to Troy? That is the question proposed by Euripides, an ancient Greek playwright, in his play "Helen." The play, first produced in 412 B.C., has been translated for modern audiences by Diane Rayor, professor of classics, and will be performed by Grand Valley students March 24-April 2.

In Euripides' play, Helen never went to Troy. Instead, the gods made Paris a phantom Helen from a cloud and sent the real Helen to Egypt for safe-keeping during the Trojan War, which was subsequently fought over the fake Helen. Seventeen years later, Menelaus lands shipwrecked in Egypt with his reclaimed phantom bride, and the real Helen attempts to convince him that she is the true Helen in order to avoid marrying the Egyptian king.

Rayor spent much of 2016 translating Euripides' writing into modern English through a grant from the Loeb Classical Library Foundation. When translating ancient texts into performance pieces, Rayor said collaboration with all parties involved in a production is key.

"By revising a draft in collaboration with actors and their director during rehearsals, I fine-tune the translation into a truly actable script that combines accuracy with lively performance," she explained. "When someone stumbles on a line, asks what something means, or unconsciously changes something, those are all clues to me that revisions need to happen."

Mallory Caillaud-Jones, a senior majoring in theater who portrays Helen in the production, said participating in the translation process helped her connect to her character more deeply.

"This process allows us to have a voice in how we think our characters would word certain things, which in turn bring us closer to them," she said. "It is very daunting to have to put yourself into the mind of a character whose entire life has been derailed by hundreds of people dying in her name because of a war her husband waged as a result of his hurt pride."

In addition to assisting with the script, Caillaud-Jones said she is excited to portray a strong female character on stage.

"Almost all the ancient texts that refer to Helen portray her as a passive subject of desire for men, but this is the only tale in which she takes control and tells the story as it truly happened," she explained. "It is unfortunately rare to find strong female characters in both contemporary and classical plays, but this play is extremely female centered."

"Helen" draws expertise from not only the theater and classics departments at Grand Valley, but also the departments of music and dance, and art and design.

Nayda Collazo-Llorens, a visual artist currently serving as the Art and Design Department's Padnos Distinguished Artist-in-Residence, has created video projections that will be used during the production. Also, Pablo Mahave-Veglia, Early Music Ensemble director and associate professor of cello, will perform the music of "Helen," along with, at times, a chorus of 13 female student voices.

"I think that audiences will find the play to be a completely sensory experience due to the combination of live actors, video and music, much like what we would think of as a piece of installation art," said Karen Libman, professor of theater and "Helen" director. "My hope is that the play will provoke pleasure and interest because it is so unique, and then maybe cause the audience to reflect on their own perceptions and well-loved myths."

Productions of "Helen" will take place March 24, 25, 30, 31 and April 1 at 7:30 p.m., and March 26 and April 2 at 2 p.m. All performances will take place in Louis Armstrong Theatre, located in the Performing Arts Center on the Allendale Campus.

Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and Grand Valley alumni, faculty and staff, and $6 for student groups. For more information or to purchase tickets, call the Louis Armstrong Box Office at (616) 331-2300.

There will also be many additional related events during the run of "Helen." For a full list of events, visit http://gvsu.edu/s/0pb.