The Judgment of Paris
nytheatre.com review by Kelly Aliano
May 9, 2008
Bond Street in Brooklyn is an unlikely location for a person to find herself being transported to another world. Yet walk through the doors of number 303 and you are not entering just another building. No, through these doors it is Paris, circa 1899. Despite the fact that the predominance of the stage area is bare, simple set pieces, such as clothing racks and strings of Christmas lights, transform the warehouse-like room into a music hall-style theatre, reminiscent of Baz Luhrman's film Moulin Rouge. This is not just a play set in a bygone era; rather, it is an entire environmental experience. Upon entering the theatre space, the actors are visible preparing for the evening's entertainment—as though it truly were the dawn of the 20th century in Paris. They are dressed like can-can dancers, in full skirts, revealing corsets, and lots of makeup. The motif is completed with both American and French songs, some which are entirely anachronistic, yet somehow appropriate, popular standards of the mid-1900s.
The Judgment of Paris, the current Company XIV production at 303 Bond Street, is no traditional play. Rather, it is, according to the press release, "an erotically charged show with a unique fusion of dance, theatre, and music, choreographed and directed by Austin McCormick." The piece is indeed all of these things—and it also happens to be nontraditional storytelling at its finest. The play employs various theatrical elements, particularly the use of dance and movement alongside narration, in order to present the story at hand. In each instance that a narrated section is accompanied by a dance, the text seems fundamentally aided by the movement, giving the audience the sense that both components are essential when trying to recount a tale effectively.
The play is a meta-theatric retelling of Paris's capture of Helen and the ensuing war between Sparta and Troy over possession of her. The play begins with Paris's choice of which goddess he wishes to present with a golden apple. Because he chooses Aphrodite, she rewards him with Helen, despite the fact that Helen is already married to Menelaus. The play traces the story through the Trojan War and beyond, giving the audience a glimpse of Helen's life as a prostitute after Paris's death.
Throughout the performance, there is no sense of a fourth wall. All of the actors are self-aware that this is theatre. The piece is entirely presentational; the troupe of the music hall has chosen to stage this material and continually steps in and out of time of the action of the story. Each actor in the play is actually playing a performer who is portraying this material—the play operates as a performance within a performance. The actors change clothes right in front of the audience in order to change characters or scenes, an applause track is used following certain dance sequences, and an emcee directly addresses the audience. This is a piece of theatre that is very much about theatre—how it is presented and, by extension, why it is presented.
The reasoning behind the choice of this Ancient Greek source material seems to be a desire to foreground the human body on stage. Bodies are central to this piece and, overall, the work is thematically preoccupied with a body-centric concern: lust. Aphrodite explains, "Lust will show you the dark truth about nature, lust is the animal reality that will never be tamed by love, lust is aggressive, unfettered, asocial." This notion is fundamental to what is at stake in this play—we see Helen's life destroyed by the competing lusts of two men. Beyond that, we are reminded that an entire war, where countless men died, was fought over that same lust. To emphasize this fascination with the body, the human form is idealized in the costumes by Olivera Gajic, the basis of which, for the dancers, are flesh-colored leotards that allow the body to seem almost entirely exposed. In addition to this, the play's second act vividly explores the thin line between performance as art and performance as a kind of exploitation, making the leap so far as to correlate it with prostitution. In both cases, bodies are on display, often with the purpose of turning a profit.
The vision for the play is cohesive and displays nothing short of sheer brilliance on the part of choreographer-director Austin McCormick. The entire company—Toby Burns, Laura Careless, Samantha Ernst, Yeva Glover, Gioia Marchese, and Davon Rainey—is superb, making the piece sexy fun while still maintaining meaning and poignancy in the material. Particularly enthralling is the Trojan War sequence: an entire battlefield is evoked through the movements of the lithe bodies of the four dancers, dim lighting, a smoke machine, and a poetic recitation from Menelaus.
This unique, compelling piece of theatre is of distinct note. It asks real questions about lust and its elusive connection to the abstract idea of love. In addition, it reminds the audience about the central concern of so much of classical tragedy; i.e., does the individual ever have free will or are all the events that transpire products of a future preordained by some divine power? Paris claims the latter in his note to Menelaus before escaping with Helen. He states, "...you will blame the gods but remember—it was the gods who conceived this whole affair to begin with." In a play that is very much concerned with the power of the human body, it still reminds its audience about how much of the universe is beyond or outside of human control.