Face of Beauty
nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
December 6, 2008
Neither the pretty girls nor the plain are safe from the lustful perils of gods and men according to both Julia Holleman's play, Face of Beauty, and the Greek myths it cleverly draws from. In fact, this new play feels very much like an old Greek tragedy with its required unrelenting suffering. This is a challenging style choice. Even the best classical companies have difficulty transferring misery out of melodrama and into engaging theatre. While the Subjective Theater Company hasn't solved this riddle either, they do raise some great ideas about our relationship to beauty. The "Face" of the title belongs to Helen of Troy, the same that "launched a thousand ships" into the Trojan War.
The play begins in Troy, near the end of the war. Helen and Paris are languishing in their quasi-marital bliss, bonding over their shared unparalleled beauty that no one else can understand. Helen loves Paris but the girl's got issues. For example, she harbors a deep suspicion of the inevitable malevolence of the gods. She's incessantly pestered by Medusa, who warns Helen that she'll end up a monster too if she doesn't use her beauty to manipulate her destiny. She occasionally suffers pangs of guilt over the soldiers on both sides dying in her name. And the poor girl is generally cursed to manifest jealousy, scorn, and misfortune in everyone she meets. Tough life, being the most beautiful woman in the world, especially when your beauty is to blame for everything wrong in two entire kingdoms.
But the interesting thing about the play is that the beauty-challenged girls aren't safe from tragedy either. Clytemnestra spends her childhood promising to protect her prettier sister Helen from her dangerous looks. But Clytemnestra herself ends up abducted into marriage by Agamemnon, who kills her first beloved husband and child to take her by force for his own. Helen's mother Ledo isn't beautiful, but gets raped by Zeus just for being found alone and gullible, and goes on to bear Helen, whose looks take after Dad. The rumors around how beautiful Ledo must be to have deserved the privilege of god-rape so humiliate her that she hides herself from the world thereafter. She's tormented by fear that people will mock her lack of beauty or call her a liar about the whole rape thing in the first place. Helen also has three mean Siren chamber maids while she's locked up in Troy who, while not as beautiful as Helen, have each suffered their share from loss of loved ones in the war.
I'd never heard it this way before, but King Priam says Troy was fighting a War for Beauty and who possesses it. It's a fascinating concept. The breadth of ideas explored in this play gave me a lot to think about. And I did think about them during the show because the acting, direction, dialogue, and technical elements were not compelling enough to draw me into the story for very long. Also, while I understand that female objectification is a theme in the play, the amount of flesh exposed by the costumes was distracting and further distancing. Unfortunately I never felt sympathy for any of these characters or really believed in this world. But like civilizations before, maybe I'll give Helen the benefit of the doubt. It's not her fault no one wants to pity the most beautiful woman in the world. And maybe that's their point.