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Self-Aware Portrait

Community Theater Dramatizes The Trials and Tribulations of Staging Community Theater

D. Bennett (kneeling) props up Lilly Hayes.

By John Barry | Posted 8/27/2008

You know what the problem is with theater? That question gets asked at the opening of Helena Troy, Rich Espey's latest entry to the Baltimore Playwrights Festival. The answer, given at the end: "You may love the theater. But it doesn't love you back."

Helena Troy is a big, fat bear hug of community theater that lasts long and squeezes tightly. The premise is that this "tiny theater in the West Village" is struggling for funding, while trying to stay true to its mission: the production of Greek plays with gravitas. There's a wealth of love, and most of it is desperate. Amy (Holly Gibbs) desperately wants to write a play; her director husband, Ted (Steve Bradford), desperately wants to stick to his principles; they desperately need money; and they have two divas, Carol Ann (Debra Tracey) and Clarissa (Lilly Hayes), who desperately want the lead role. Then there's Peter (D. Grant Cloyd), who desperately wants his boyfriend, bisexual actor Rick (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), to make up his damn mind. Amy also desperately wants a baby, and Rick desperately wants to make it big in "Cali," where he's going to do a shot as spokesman for Mister Lube.

To make it all possible, Amy and, presumably, Espey come up with a play called Testocles, and by claiming that it's an ancient Greek play written by a female Greek playwright, it sticks to the theater's mission. Amy, though, makes some big mistakes. Testocles is a pun on "testicle," a joke that ceases to amuse after an hour or so--and Helena Troy goes on for more than two hours. Amy also tries to debunk the pedestal on which we place Greek playwrights. It may be a problem that needs addressing, but when you look at the contemporary state of American culture, it lacks urgency. Amy also pokes fun at the homoerotic streak in ancient Greek literature, but that has been addressed before.

Espey, president of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival and two-time winner, has time to show his strengths, especially as his characters sling one-liners and mock pretensions at each other, but he also gives himself more than enough time to indulge in his over-the-top humor, which isn't one of his strengths. By using Amy as a surrogate writer, Espey appears to be staying one degree away from the jokes about strap-ons and old men burying their faces in other characters' nether regions. It's hard to blame him. His dry wit and clever dialogue serve him best in slimmed-down plays such as Sapiens! (shown two years ago at the Capital Fringe festival); Potter County, in which he takes on the classroom; and Bottom Dollar, a longer production that mocks Christmas consumerism.

But Troy needs some reworking. Maybe it's that the material here is too close for comfort or too distant. Ultimately, the juggling gets complex, and the sense of humor gets lost in the wilderness, along with the characters and the audience. (The above plot summary is highly incomplete.) It's a play about a work in progress, true, but, ultimately, progress is slow, and the real-life playwright has to take responsibility. Credit is due to the actors for negotiating a difficult, two-tier production and spotlighting some of the play's virtues. As Dr. Harrison Lattimore, Omar Pulliam adds actual gravitas to the play. Espey's admiration for Richard Lattimore (the real-life translator of Greek drama whom Harrison is based on) shines through, and you almost hope that Espey decides to write a play about him. Ebrahimzadeh also gives substance to his small part as Rick, the somewhat conflicted lover. And as Amy, Gibbs gives her role the urgency that it needs to stay afloat. So while Helena Troy may indeed be a love song for by-the-bootstraps, off-off-off Broadway theater, in this case, the theater doesn't love it back.

Now for one brief rant: This is the second play about a play that this reviewer has seen in this round of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, and there have been plenty of others in the past. When the principal character takes out her laptop and invites us into the left side of her brain, and the clickety-clack starts, with breaks for texting, reading e-mails, and Googling, a warning light should go on. People come to the theater to watch actors use space, not to pretend that it doesn't exist.

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