Theater Around the Bay: Christian Simonsen & Alejandro Torres of “No Fault”

The Pint-Sized Plays have their 4th performance tonight! We continue our series of interviews with the festival’s writers and directors by speaking to writer Christian Simonsen and director Alejandro Torres of “No Fault”! (Alejandro also served as the Deputy Producer of Pint-Sized this year.)

“No Fault” introduces us to Jack and Kate, a divorcing couple with an 8-year-old daughter, who’ve scheduled a quick meeting in a corner bar to sign their divorce papers, make it official, and try to put the past to rest. Colin Hussey and Lisa Darter play the couple.

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Christian Simonsen, a writer returning to Pint-Sized.

What made you get involved with Pint-Sized this year or, if you’re returning to the festival, why did you come back?

Christian: I have been a fan of the Pint-Sized Play Festival since the beginning, and I was honored to have an earlier short play of mine, the comedy “Multitasking,” produced by this festival in 2013. I love immersive, site-specific theater like this, where the actors rub shoulders with the audience. That’s not just an expression… if you come to this show, a drunk llama may literally rub your shoulders!

Alejandro: I love this theater company and all the fresh work they bring to San Francisco (and on a monthly basis too). I’ve directed and performed with them before and have also met some great and talented folks that keep me coming back.

What’s the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Christian: The challenge to writing a short play is to remember that it’s not a full-length play crammed into a few pages. That may sound obvious, but it’s tempting during the writing process to forget that. It generally can only be about one thing. Every word of dialogue, every prop, every stage direction must earn its keep. A full-length play can survive three or four weak scenes. A short play has trouble recovering from three or four weak lines of dialogue. As a general rule, a short script can’t really handle numerous subplots crisscrossing each other, but it should also avoid being a “mood piece” that just sits there.

What’s the best thing about writing a short play? 

Christian: Its purity. Audience members rarely walk away from a short play with mixed feelings; it either worked or it didn’t. As a writer, I’m most productive when I’m given boundaries and limitations, and the short play format fits the bill perfectly. For example, in “No Fault,” a separated couple are going through the awkward, tense ordeal of signing their divorce papers in a pub that they used to frequent during happier times. The stage directions have both actors sitting at a table for most of the script. But when the woman delivers the most intimate line of dialogue to her now ex-husband, she is standing away from the table while the man remains seated. The ironic contrast of their emotional closeness and their physical distance would be lost (or at least watered down) in a longer play where the actors would be moving around for two hours, willy-nilly.

What’s been the most exciting part of this process?

Alejandro: Simply getting it all together as producer and table work as a director.

What’s been most troublesome?

Alejandro: Scheduling!

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Christian: For scriptwriting in general (short and long, stage and screen), they would include Richard Matheson, Elaine May, Ernest Lehman, Preston Sturges, John Guare, Tina Fey, Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare, Ben Hecht, Tom Stoppard, Horton Foote, Monty Python.

If you could cast a celebrity in your Pint-Sized Play, who would it be and why?

Christian: That’s tough, because I try and make it a point not to picture celebrities, whether world-famous or local, when I create characters. My goal is always to write a character that is solid and fully-formed on the page, while still leaving enough wiggle room where an actor can put their own spin on him or her. That being said, for this script I could picture actors Mark Ruffalo, Elden Henson, John Hawkes, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Amy Poehler, Sandra Oh.

Alejandro: Hmm… Maggie Cheung and Joaquin Phoenix. I they would make for an interesting dynamic.

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Director Alejandro Torres shows off his dramatic side.

Who’s your secret Bay Area actor crush? That is… what actor would you love a chance to work with?

Alejandro: This is cheating as I have worked with these two before but have never directed them: Genevieve Perdue and Alan Coyne.

What are you currently working on/what’s next for you?

Christian: I was one of the staff writers on Killing My Lobster’s August sketch comedy show Game of Nerds, which was a lot of fun to work on. My next project is a collaboration with the multi-talented Sean Owens. We are developing a comedy web series called Under the Covers, which will be both hysterical and educational (or at least one of the two).

Alejandro: The SF Fringe Festival this September will be my next project. I will be remounting an original piece called Projected Voyages about dreams, nightmares, and passing thoughts.

What Bay Area theater events or shows are you excited about this summer/fall?

Christian: I want to see Barry Eitel’s The Ice Cream Sandwich Incident. I’ve always admired Barry as an actor, and I’m anxious to see what he does as a playwright. It also stars two of my favorite local actors, Becky Hirschfeld and Paul Rodrigues. And producer Stuart Bousel’s San Francisco Olympians Festival in October is always an exciting event that features new plays by Bay Area writers.

Alejandro: Killing My Lobster’s August show Game of Nerds. [ed: this closed last weekend! Apologies for not posting this interview sooner!]

What’s your favorite beer?

Christian: Stella Artois, but I will happily endorse another brewery if they give me their product or money or both.

Alejandro: IPAs that pair well with whiskey.

“No Fault” and the other Pint-Sized Plays have 2 performances remaining: August 23 and 29 at 8 PM at PianoFight! 

 

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Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Forewarned is Forearmed

Warning: Incoming Marissa Skud-missle.

One of the hot topics du jour is trigger warnings, but many of the arguments I read, both pro and con, strike me as arguments in bad faith. Engage in a discussion of trigger warnings and you’ll find slippery slopes full of straw men. Both sides claim the moral high ground. The pro-trigger-warnings crowd can imply that their sensitivity to social justice issues makes them better, more highly evolved human beings. The anti-trigger-warnings crowd can imply that art should always challenge and disturb us, so it’s immature and imbecilic to want to mentally prepare yourself before experiencing an upsetting work of art.

Let’s acknowledge, right off, that there’s a problem with the way the word “trigger” has gone from having a legitimate medical meaning related to PTSD, to meaning “anything that I find uncomfortable or unpleasant or morally questionable.” It’s the equivalent of someone who says “I’m allergic to gluten” when they mean “I want to eat fewer carbs.” Therefore, perhaps a better term than “trigger warnings” is “warnings about upsetting content.”

Many of the discussions about trigger warnings involve academia, where this issue is especially tricky because of the power dynamics therein: the professor designs a syllabus and the students have to read and engage with the material, or else they could fail the class. This blog isn’t about academia, though, so I’m sticking to the somewhat less fraught issue of trigger warnings for theater. Here, at least, people can freely choose whether they want to buy a ticket and experience a certain story.

To counteract all of the bad-faith arguments that result when talking about trigger warnings, I want to promote a good-faith relationship between theaters and audiences, in which they meet each other halfway. If a theater is producing a potentially disturbing play, they could put a blurb on their website that says something like “This play contains potentially disturbing material and is not appropriate for children. Please email us if you have additional questions.” (Being vague, and asking people to email for more specific information, avoids spoiling the plot of the play for people who don’t require trigger warnings.) I don’t think this represents some horrible capitulation to the Philistine hordes who hate any art that challenges their perceptions. Instead, it allows people to obtain information and decide for themselves what actions to take.

In turn, it’s the responsibility of trigger-sensitive ticket buyers to educate themselves as to what they might be seeing, and contact the theater if they have questions. If the theater offers them the opportunity to do this, and they don’t take advantage of it, they can’t complain if they attend the show and experience a trigger. Human beings are pretty good at finding coping strategies that enable them to turn toward pleasure and turn away from pain; but they should know that the world always offers both pleasure and pain.

Like it or not, we theater artists are in the business of selling tickets and attracting audiences. As such, I think we need to manage our audience members’ expectations fairly, and keep lines of communications open. Some friends of mine recently felt swindled by the marketing for ACT’s Let There Be Love: they went into the theater expecting to see “an intimate and often humorous family drama” (per the blurb), only to discover that it’s a play about assisted suicide. Neither of them were triggered, per se, but they thought they were going to see a cozy and heartwarming show, and weren’t happy when the play took a darker turn. Even if you think that some suggested trigger warnings (“heteronormativity,” really?) are silly, it’s not hard to see that the topic of assisted suicide might be upsetting for many people, and I have to think that there’s some way ACT could have better prepared their audiences for this.

Think about it this way: at the end of every New York Times movie review, they print a blurb about the film’s MPAA rating and potentially disturbing subject matter. Over the years, the critics have made these blurbs into a wry little art form of their own (A.O. Scott’s blurb re: Mad Max: Fury Road’s R rating is simply that it’s “a ruthless critique of everything existing”). It’s fair to say that these blurbs are trigger warnings; yet I don’t see the anti-trigger-warning crowd calling for them to be abolished. As far as I can tell, a fair number of people appreciate that the Times does this, and nobody really finds it pernicious. Without enacting official censorship or a ratings system, is there a way to offer a similar advisory for theater?

I know. Everything I’m saying here sounds boring and sedate and wishy-washy. In this polarized environment, it’s more fun to say “Down with the heteronormative cissexual white patriarchy, trigger warnings for all!” or “You’re a bunch of snowflake crybabies who can’t handle the complexity of the real world, I refuse to coddle you!” And yet, there are other people arguing for the middle ground. As I was drafting this column, one of my Facebook friends posted a link to the article “How to Teach an Ancient Rape Joke,” by Donna Zuckerberg. The rape joke in question occurs in Euripides’ Cyclops – which, in a funny coincidence, is the first play that Theater Pub ever produced.

Zuckerberg writes that when she recently prepared to teach Cyclops, she realized that she needed to acknowledge the rape joke and address it in the context of Greek culture. She felt that there were many valid reasons for Cyclops to be on her syllabus, and that rape shouldn’t be the sole point of her discussion, but neither should it be ignored. She also decided that there are ways to read the scene in Cyclops as critiquing rape culture rather than reinforcing it, which brings up another important point: everyone involved in debating trigger warnings needs to acknowledge that depiction of an unpleasant situation, character, or attitude doesn’t mean that the author (or the professor, or the theater company) endorses this unpleasantness.

Art and fiction allow us to process uncomfortable emotions; indeed, some people would say that that’s their main purpose. Here’s one last, somewhat flippant thought. Greek tragedy is supposed to provoke catharsis – pity and fear. What if “cathartic” is just a synonym for “triggering”?

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, producer, and arts writer. She finds bad-faith, slippery-slope arguments triggering. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or find her on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Working Title: Broadcast This!!

This week features Will Leschber’s fall preview…but not the kind you were expecting You want Theatre? Well, go see this movie!

This is the time to look ahead. It’s Fall preview, so lets jump in while it’s cold. The theatre offerings coming down the autumnal road are plentiful. For a beautiful cross section taste of what’s coming, I’d recommend checking out (or rereading) Claire Rice’s recent post “Get the Fuck off the Couch“. BUT if you are looking for related entertainment in a different vein read on. Film Festivals and live theatre broadcasts may be the change of pace you are looking for.

Film festivals are a unique way to merge intimate audience engagement and the distance of film. Often these films have creators in attendance which can add a live spark to a viewing experience. So you want to keep it local (ish) and experience something more distinct than the multiplex fall fare…check these out.

Latino Film Festival

Sept 19-27th

The Cine+Mas SF Latino Film Festival showcases the work of emerging and established filmmakers from the US, Latin America, Spain and Portugal. It is a celebration of the latest work coming out of 20+ countries.

Mill Valley Film Festival

Oct 3-13

The festival site self-describes in this way, “Each year the festival welcomes more than 200 filmmakers, representing more than 50 countries. Screening sections include World Cinema; US Cinema; Valley of the Docs; Children’s FilmFest; a daily shorts program; and Active Cinema, MVFF’s activist films initiative. Festival guests also enjoy Tributes, Spotlights and Galas throughout.”

Known as a filmmakers’ festival, the Mill Valley Film Festival offers a high profile, prestigious and star-studded environment perfect for celebrating the best in independent and world cinema. Screen International named Mill Valley one of its top 10 US film festivals.”

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Sacramento Horror Film Festival

October 10th-12th

It may be less local than we’d like, but if you are looking for something to infuse seasonal scares into your spine, the Sacramento Horror Film Festival maybe be your trick or treat. The film site boasts, “The SHFF screens more films over fewer days than any other horror film festival thus providing a greater chance for exposure for the horror filmmaker. We have a profound dedication to the horror genre. The festival screens all things horror including features, shorts, documentaries, music videos, trailers, and animations.”

If sitting in a darkened movie theater for days on end isn’t your jam, perhaps National Theatre Live is the ticket. For those unaware, National Theatre Live is the National Theatre’s groundbreaking project to broadcast the best of British theatre live from the London stage to cinemas across the UK and around the world. Upcoming shows include: The Young Vic’s highly acclaimed production of the Tennessee Williams masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire, with Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster and Vanessa Kirby; A new potent version Euripides’ powerful tragedy, Medea; A live broadcast from London’s West End of David Hare’s Skylight directed by Stephen Daldry and featuring Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan; and last but not least National Theatre Live’s broadcast of Frankenstein returns to cinemas this fall. Audience demand has been unprecedented for this broadcast. Directed by Academy Award®-winner Danny Boyle, Frankenstein features Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating roles as Victor Frankenstein and his creation.

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A Streetcar Named Desire
Captured Live:
Century 9 San Francisco Center- September 16th
AMC Bay Street 16-September 16th
Encore Performance:
Sundance Kabuki- October 13th & 18th

Medea
Encore performance:
Sundance Kabuki Theatre: October 6th & 11th.

Skylight
Sundance Kabuki- October 25th, 27th

Frankenstein
Encore Performance:
Rialto Cinema Cerrito, October 15th, 20th, 27th 29th

The National Theatre Live website lists additional productions and additional participating movie theatres.

Sources

O’Niell, Nikki. Mill Valley Film Festival. N.d. Photograph. http://www.mvff.com/Web. 19 Aug 2014.

Director Stuart Bousel Talks About Helen of Troy: Part Two

Conflicting ideas about Helen of Troy, and her level of culpability in the end of the Age of Heroes, begins with her birth.

Though Leda is considered by the majority of poets and scholars to have been her mother, there is another tradition that Leda was, in fact, a foster mother who raised a little girl dropped in her lap one morning by a large and mysterious swan. In this version, Helen was the daughter of Zeus and the goddess Nemesis, the embodiment of divine retribution for those whose excessive pride had led them to raise themselves above the order of things. Older than Zeus, Nemesis was one of those early goddesses of mysterious origins (her mother was usually cited as Nyx, the fathomless night) and incredible, unquestionable power. The most pervasive myth about her was that she wandered the earth, winged and carrying a sword, and that the day she left the earth to return to heaven would mark the beginning of the end of the world. Thus, in versions of the Trojan saga where Nemesis is the mother of Helen, it is not Zeus who visits Leda as a swan, but Leda’s perception of Nemesis as she takes flight, abandoning her newborn daughter, the vehicle through which disaster of epic proportions will be unleashed on the kingdoms of men.

If we accept this story it’s actually kind of hard to hold Helen’s role as the Greek anti-Christ against her: clearly it’s what’s intended from the start by forces not only more powerful than her, but more powerful than Zeus himself- which is interesting to think about in light of the tradition that Zeus generally disapproves of the Trojan War, favors the Trojans an account of their high level of civilization, and only upholds the Greeks “winning” the war because it’s decreed by Fate, who even Zeus can not over-rule. Even without the double whammy of being the daughter of Nemesis, the earliest depictions we get of Helen, via The Iliad (where she is Leda’s daughter), depict her as a reluctant prop- the question is really just whose prop. Her husband’s? Her lover’s? Or something far more powerful and sinister?

Homer’s Helen, as she appears in Book III of The Iliad,  is a lonely, sad woman full of self-hate who is shunned by the majority of Trojans, particularly the women, and feels helpless, adrift in a sea of conflicting interests, none of which are her own. At one point she openly admits that she has no real love for Paris, but only left Menelaus on account of the machinations of Aphrodite, who uses threats and magic to keep Helen in Paris’ bed. But anyone who knows anything about Greek mythology knows that the gods, particularly the Olympian gods, aren’t stand alone beings whimsically using their super powers to toy with human beings, but rather manifestations of the forces inside of us, representing just how powerful- and whimsical- our own personalities can be. Claiming that “Aphrodite made me do it!” is akin to crying, “The Devil made me do it!” and was really a poetic way of shirking responsibility. Maybe the Devil did make you do it, but the question of who let the Devil in remains on the table and implies that the sins of the transgressor cannot be wholly placed upon external intervention. Even the most literal reading of the gods of Ancient Greece will usually find that human beings often take the first step, and usually the second and third as well, of their own free will: the gods rarely act or intervene so much as indirectly help out or hinder- or in the case of sins, provide the temptations. When Helen tries to resist Aphrodite it’s frightening and you feel sorry for her, but it’s hard not to also recognize the person Helen is really fighting with is herself and not so much her attraction to Paris, as her desire to control him and benefit from the place in Trojan society conveyed by her marriage to him. Not that Helen considered herself worse off with Menelaus- in Book III she readily considers returning to him and ultimately they do end up together and (irony of all ironies) more or less happy (certainly they end their days much more peacefully than most of the other major players in the Trojan War). What Helen doesn’t consider is any life outside of being a kept woman to a king or prince who can provide her with the jewels and luxuries she rushes to pack when it looks like she might be heading back to Greece. The implication is that ultimately Helen, though complicated and mortal, is still fundamentally a weak willed woman who values status, wealth and other facets of her own vanity over doing “the right thing.”

Of course, it might be hard to know what the right thing to do is when you live in a society where traditional concepts of good and evil don’t really exist and the value system of war, honor and retribution tends to trump that of peace, forgiveness and generosity. For this reason, famously pacifist Euripedes often uses Helen as the symbol of the war-mongering mentality he saw as man’s worst personality flaw- an outgrowth of unchecked vanity and delusion which tied in nicely with the myth of Helen. Where as mysoginist Hesiod used Helen as the ultimate embodiment of the evils women created, Euripedes often took a novel (and to some extent, progressive) approach of making Helen the symbol of man’s ultimate evils, usually by contrasting her, negatively, with other women of her era, for whom Euripedes seems to have felt tremendous sympathy. This is particularly notable in The Trojan Women, where Helen is sharply contrasted with Andromache, Cassandra and Hecuba, presented as noble sufferers whose spirits somehow remain unbroken, while Helen flounces around the stage like the vacuous slut the chorus (also women) accuses her of being. In another Euripedean tragedy, Andromache, Helen’s daughter Hermoine conducts herself in a fashion that the chorus readily recognizes as “like mother, like daughter”. Eventually she runs off and marries Orestes, her cousin, further cementing the idea of the Houses of Sparta and Argos as the classical equivalent of white trash. Contrast this with Euripedes’ love affair with Andromache, Helen’s Trojan foil, the devoted wife and widow of Hector whose infant son is brutally murdered and yet somehow Andromache is able to keep it together, survive a decade of slavery to the son of her husband’s killer, and eventually ends up married to Helenus, one of the last surviving princes of Troy who has somehow managed to eke out a small and peaceful kingdom. Andromache’s ultimate happiness is one of the hardest earned happy endings in Greek mythology, but it establishes her as a bonafide heroine- a shining example of everything Helen doesn’t embody- namely strength of character, will power to endure the brutality of men and gods alike, and integrity and honor comparable to her husband’s legendary example.

And yet a more interesting, and perhaps less obvious comparison, is between Helen and Medea. Where as we know Andromache will ultimately end up better and certainly more reveared than Helen because that’s how most stories work, it’s shocking when one realizes that Medea arguably also comes to a better end. While she isn’t responsible for starting a war, Medea is certainly on par with Clytemnestra and the daughters of Danaus, famous villainesses of Greek myth. Her racked up body count includes an old man, his twin daughters, her own brother, and her own children. Yet at the end of her mythic cycle, Medea steps onto a chariot led by dragons and ascends into the heavens and, ostensibly, immortality. Helen, even in the most forgiving tales, only manages a spot in Elysium, the VIP section of the Underworld. Why does one lethal beauty end up a goddess while another more or less fades into obscurity? In the end, it’s all conjecture, but my theory can be summed up in one sentence: because Medea is a bad-ass and Helen is just a pretty face.

Something we often forget is that ancient Greek morality was very different from the Judeo-Christian morality that influences our modern concepts of right or wrong. Being a terrible person (i.e. Medea) was a lot more acceptable if you were pro-actively terrible. If you really embraced the darkness of your soul you might end up condemned to eternal torture in Tartarus- but you also had a decent shot at being elevated to divine status if, frankly, even the gods were impressed (and probably somewhat frightened of you). That, however, would require more work than Helen ever puts into anything, and so once more her defining feature (aside from her beauty) appears to be her passiveness. She lacks the personal drive to be either a heroine or a villain, and because she more or less ends peacefully, she’s even denied the noble victimhood/martyr status of figures like Cassandra or Iphegenia. Her only significant child, Hermoine, isn’t terribly significant at all so Helen doesn’t even have the dubious distinction of being the mother of a hero, a la Denae, Aethra or even Cassiopeia. Even Helen of Troy’s name hints that her only value is in relation to the society whose destruction her passivity brings about; without it, she’s just a pretty face. Which, since beauty ultimately fades (and even Helen ends up in the Underworld) means that in reality, Helen is arguably the most famous cipher in literature.

Euripedes sources his play about Helen from this idea: that behind the attractive façade, there’s actually nothing there- Helen is a giant zero. First suggested by the ancient historian Herodotus, the crux of the argument is that Helen herself never actually went to Troy, but it was a decoy created by Aphrodite (a la Pandora) who Paris stole and the real Helen awoke to find herself in Egypt, one of the few civilized nations to abstain entirely from the Trojan War. For ten years Helen remained in this place until by chance, on his return voyage from Troy, Menelaus and his crew landed near the temple where she sought sanctuary and only then does Menelaus realize that the Helen in his ship is a phantom, and that the war he has spent the prime of his life fighting and which has killed countless men and women and children, was fought in the name of something that was never really there. Euripedes takes this variant a few steps farther, implying that the phantom Helen was the ultimate punishment of the Gods- or perhaps, the ultimate gambit in their attempt to reveal to mankind their true nature, as no less than Athena (the goddess of wisdom) is credited with the creation of the phantom Helen (though Hera apparently comes up with the idea). Helen was written at a time when there was a great  tremendous questioning of traditional values, and it’s hard to miss the poet’s statement about the worthlessness of trophies (be they beautiful queens or glorious reputations), the pointlessness of war, the destructiveness of honor at all costs, and that man’s foolish and violent nature is the problem, not Fate, not the gods, and certainly not an errant woman. As Menelaus and Helen escape to freedom and ostensible domestic bliss (that was apparently never in question, just interrupted), the happy ending isn’t entirely satisfying because it’s impossible to ignore the sheer wastefulness of everything that has provided for it. Even when Helen is finally given her redemption, she leaves a bitter taste in your mouth and you can never quite shake the nagging thought that femme fatale or tragic pawn, she just wasn’t worth it.

But as Janine Garofolo’s character points out in the climactic scene of the 1996 film The Truth About Cats And Dogs, when has that knowledge ever stopped men from throwing it all away for a pretty face?

Check back next week for the conclusion of Stuart Bousel’s exploration of Helen of Troy, and don’t miss Helen at the San Francisco Theater Pub, one night only, this Valentine’s Day, at the Cafe Royale (800 Post Street, San Francisco), 8 PM, Free!

Director Stuart Bousel Talks About Helen of Troy: Part 1

Few figures from Greek mythology are as famous, or controversial, as Helen of Troy, and this has been true since ancient times.

For those who have somehow never heard of her, Helen of Troy was born Helen of Sparta, the daughter of the mortal queen, Leda, and the king of the gods, Zeus. The principal legend (of course there are several and we’ll get into that later) is that Zeus came to Leda as a swan, made love to her (for all intents and purposes, Leda appears to have been a very willing participant in her seduction in addition to being adventurous on the bestiality front), either shortly before or shortly after her own husband, Tyndareus, had done the same (sans swan form, one hopes). Nine months later, Leda gave birth to a pair of eggs, each containing a boy and a girl infant. The first contained Tyndareus’ children, the mortal Clytemnestra and Castor; the second contained Zeus’ children, the immortal demi-gods Helen and Pollux. You would think this miraculous birth would have been pegged for the end of times sign it was, but Leda and Tyndareus apparently took this in stride and raised their four chicks (get it?) relatively without incident until Helen hit puberty.

That’s when she was abducted for the first time, by no less than Theseus, the king of Athens and famed killer of the Minotaur. Castro and Pollux manage to get her back, but it’s not a good sign of what’s to come and Tyndareus, knowing this, decides to marry her off as quickly as possible. The problem is, Helen is so beautiful EVERYBODY wants to marry her and virtually every king in the known world shows up, or sends his sons, and all of them bring friends. Tyndareus is so worried he will offend somebody that he defers making his decision for as long as possible (in some versions, years) until he can finally come up with a plan. The most popular legend is that everybody’s favorite smart guy, Odysseus, shows up, though already happily married, basically to watch the fun and Tyndareus  asks him for advice. Odysseus, of course, has a plan, and first gets all the kings and princes courting Helen to agree to accept whoever is declared Helen’s husband and uphold the sanctity of their marriage, and then, in a novel move for the time, lets Helen pick her own husband, so as to remove all blame from her father. Helen picks Menelaus, the younger and not particularly distinguished brother of Agamemnon, king of Argos, who is already betrothed to Clytemnestra, Helen’s sister. Her choice is pretty much the one NOBODY expected and so the various suitors accept it almost immediately, figuring there must be something wrong with Helen to go for the runt of the liter. The truth is, Helen probably just picked the man she knew would be easiest for her to control (modern interpretation) or she may have even genuinely loved him, probably because he’s a more sensitive guy than the average Greek tyrant (the romantic interpretation). Either way, they are wed, and Tyndareus abdicates so that Menelaus and Helen can rule Sparta. Agamemnon marries Clytemnestra, so the brothers and the sisters become Greece’s biggest celebrity monarchs over night. For a while, it looks like everything will be okay.

And then a Trojan prince named Paris comes to town and everything falls apart. Ostensibly on a diplomatic mission, Paris falls in love with and either seduces or kidnaps Helen, taking her back to Troy and breaking pretty much every rule of hospitality (enormously sacred to the Greeks and the Trojans). To some extent, Paris feels justified in doing this- he had been promised Helen as a bride by the goddess Aphrodite, after he awarded her a golden apple that the goddess Eris had deigned worthy of only “the fairest” goddess on Olympus. Since Aphrodite is one of the protector goddesses of Troy, this probably accounts for why Priam, king of Troy, agrees to shelter the miscreant couple, and essentially tells the Greeks they can accept Helen’s weight in gold or they can accept nothing at all, but what they won’t be getting back is Helen. Menelaus, of course, wants her back, as by now Helen has not only mothered at least one daughter by him (Hermoine), but she’s grown into the most beautiful woman alive and let’s not forget her status as a daughter of Zeus. Additionally, Troy has been controlling the entrance to the Black Sea for years and so any excuse for a war is a good one as the Greeks have grown tired of paying passage taxes on the trade routes. Menelaus invokes the oath that Tyndareus and Odysseus struck with all the suitors and the Greeks declare war on Troy, with Agamemnon in the lead (who, considering he wasn’t part of the oath of Tyndareus, is most definitely there for ulterior motives). It takes two years for the troops of the various city-states to amass, and once the fleets of the Argives hit shore on enemy territory the war lasts another ten years. By the time it ends, two of the most powerful and advanced cultures of the world are decimated and in ruins and the dead are numberless.

The rest, as they say, is history… or mythology. Even in their own times, the Greeks weren’t sure how much of the saga of the Trojan War was truth, and how much was legend. What they all agreed on, though, is that it marked the end of the Age of Heroes, that time in Greece when the gods roamed the land, monsters and magic were pervasive, and heroes rose up to make the world a better place. In typical Greek style, the end of the world didn’t come with floods or fires or plagues of Biblical proportion, but rather with just plain old social chaos after virtually every significant leader of the known world is killed in the Trojan War, and the ones who survive make it home only to discover everything in various arrays of disorder, from angry housewives (Clytemnestra, for instance, most famously murders Agamemnon the day he gets back) to entire kingdoms lost to occupying armies, pirates or other external forces. Only a handful of regions survive relatively unscathed or are able to rebuild themselves. One of them is Egypt, something which we’ll talk about more later.

The fascination and controversy surrounding Helen starts with her “abduction”, and essentially revolves around the classic question of any cuckolded husband whose world view is, shall we say “old fashioned” (read: misogynist): did she go of her own free will, or was she raped? The difference being, of course, that Helen’s own willful participation in her ill-fated second marriage casts her as either a victim or a villain. Either way, she’s still a scapegoat, occupying a place in Greek mythology held only by one other person: the first woman, Pandora, who is the classical world’s equivalent to the Judeo-Christian figure of Eve. Like Pandora, Helen is a divine emissary, and can be seen as essentially a trap dressed up pretty by the gods, a time bomb with a smile that is intended to make humanity suffer. Some poets, like the famously anti-woman Hesiod, used both Pandora and Helen as examples to uphold a widely accepted belief that women were a curse upon humanity- especially if they were pretty- and best off subjugated by men, who could only come to grief through loving them. But Hesiod’s opinion was hardly indicative of all Greek perspective, and just as Greek women were held in different regards depending on the region or era, portrayals of Helen ranged from sympathetic to damning long before she was romanticized by Renaissance writers and painters like Marlowe (who coined the famous phrase “the face that launched a thousand ships” when Helen makes a cameo in his play, Dr. Faustus). In our age, Helen has been reclaimed (and re-written) by modern feminists such as Marion Zimmer Bradley and Margaret Atwood, turned into the ultimate woman “cursed” by her own desirability.  Euripedes himself painted several different portraits of Helen, using her as a canvas to express his rage over the treatment of women, the futility of war, and the dangers of vanity and self-absorption. Over the next few weeks, as we get closer to Theater Pub’s reading of his play, Helen, I’ll explore some of the different masks this famous face has worn.

Check in next week for another segment of Stuart Bousel’s ruminations on Helen of Troy, and don’t miss Theater Pub’s free dramatic reading of Helen on Tuesday, February 14th, Valentine’s Day, at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale!

Join SFTP this Valentine’s Day for a Classic Rom Com!

Join San Francisco Theater Pub this Valentine’s Day for a classic story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl to sexy foreigner, boy declares war on foreigner’s homeland, boy destroys foreigner’s homeland, boy gets girl back only to lose girl again and discover he may have never lost her (or had her) to begin with. Euripides’ HELEN is considered by many to be the first dramatic romance, an adult play (in the maturity sense, not the rated X sense) about middle aged lovers learning what it means to be married and committed, not just hot enough to die for. It’s comic, it’s bizarre, it’s full of massive plot gaps and leaps of logic, and more than one genuine nugget of beauty and wisdom on the evasive nature of true romance.

If you’re single, what better place to come launch a thousand ships with that sexy smile? If you’re paired off, bring your beloved and learn from the Great Poet while you’re still sober enough to absorb something useful, then get drunk with us afterwards and screw it all up during the trip home!

Starring Tonyanna Borkovi, Kirsten Broadbear, Nick Dickson, Maura Halloran, James Kierstead, Dan Kurtz, Theresa Miller, Tonya Narvaez, Karen Offereins, Leer Relleum, Marissa Skudlarek, Aaron Tworek and directed by Stuart Bousel, this will be a classic Theater Pub dramatic reading, complete with sexy actors in sheets and perhaps a Valentine’s Day Treat or two.

Admission is FREE with a suggested five dollar donation. No Reservations necessary, but we encourage early arrivals to get the best seating. The show begins at 8 PM!

San Francisco Theater Pub Launches into the Blogosphere!

On January 18, 2010, the crowd inside the Café Royale on Post and Leavenworth extended out the door. Inside, a standing room listened as Skye Alexander sang “Wayfaring Stranger” from the upper balcony. As the song came to a close, an actor stepped in front of red curtain emblazoned with the Café Royale emblem, stood for a moment, then shouted “Dionysus! Dionysus my master, you son of a bitch!” The first lines of the first performance of the San Francisco Theater Pub.

The San Francisco Theater Pub was founded in late 2009 by Stuart Bousel, Victor Carrion, Bennett Fisher, and Brian Markley, with the support of Les and Dan Cowan and their bar, the Café Royale. For the inaugural event in January, co-founder Bennett Fisher directed a staged reading his new translation of the satyr play Cyclops by Euripides – a ribald retelling of the famous story from the Odyssey and the oldest, as far as we know, play about drinking – accompanied by live music and flowing drinks from two very overworked bartenders.

You can read an interview with Fisher about Cyclops on Tim Bauer’s blog here and watch video of the production from UnfocusedSF here.

Since the first night, the San Francisco Theater Pub has hosted two more events, also playing to standing room only crowds.

In February, the day after Valentine’s day, co-founder Stuart Bousel directed A Valentine’s Day Post Mortem – a collection of original writing and songs from local artists offering all manner of perspectives on the subject of love and what (if anything) it has to do with the holiday.

Last Monday, co-founder Brian Markley presented How To Ride a Bus in San Francisco – a series of short scenes, songs, poems, and meditations on the perils and pitfalls of that infamous San Francisco Transit System.

And more is coming…

In April, Fisher returns to direct the first full production for the San Francisco Theater Pub – Vacláv Havel’s comic one act Audience. The event runs for five performances on Mondays and Tuesdays – April 13, 19, 20 and May 3 and 4 – 8pm each night and (as always) free admission. Reserved seating is limited, so be sure to make a reservation early if you do not want to stand.

The local community has responded enthusiastically. Even in these first few events we, the founders, have found a considerable thirst for a different type of theatrical event performed on nights – Mondays and Tuesdays – when cultural events of all sorts are scarce. We hope that the San Francisco Theater Pub will continue to serve as an inviting and inclusive nexus for artists and audiences – offering pieces that are short, lively, and engaging and in a relaxed bar environment with plenty of good beer on tap.

We’ll keep this blog updated with the latest in all things San Francisco Theater Pub, upcoming projects, behind the scenes perspective into the process, and ways for all those to get involved. To learn more, become fans of us on Facebook, email theaterpub@atmostheatre.com, and swing by on performance nights to talk with the team.

We look forward to seeing you there.

-Stuart Bousel, Victor Carrion, Bennett Fisher, and Brian Markley.