Written by Will Coleman
Directed by Brock Harris Hill
Presented by Rising Sun Performance Company
Planet Connections, NYC
June 19-July 9, 2016
While avoiding mingling with guests during a crowded party in Will Coleman’s Helvetica, presented in its world premiere by the Rising Sun Performance Company (who were responsible for the excellent recent production of Sprucehaven B), protagonist Helvetica Burke quotes T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas." Helvetica herself is a writer, of children’s books, and her invocation of Eliot’s famously self-doubting narrator highlights her own cynical side, the side that sees existence as inherently meaningless and stories as a way to help alleviate this condition. She also, however, has a tenaciously persistent sense of childlike wonder and possibility, even if that side sometimes goes unacknowledged for stretches of time. Helvetica, benefitting the New York Public Library as part of the socially- and ecologically-conscious Planet Connections Festivity, explores the interplay between these two sides and how they interact with the stories that we choose to tell ourselves and others.
The Helvetica who quotes Eliot is credited as "Present Helvetica," the post-college to middle-aged incarnation played by Julia Torres. We also see "Past Helvetica" as a child (played ably by the adult Elizabeth Pegg) and an older, "Future Helvetica" (Betsy Feldman). The play uses this device to cover the full scope of her life, visiting important or illuminating moments in complementary rather than chronological order and sometimes reading or reciting her written work. Our guide through this temporal collage is Myron (Sven Haabeth), the English-accented teddy bear who is given to Helvetica as a child by her mother (Destiny Shegstad) and who acts for an imaginative only child as a best friend and for us as a narrator.
Myron, associated with the intense creativity of childhood, is banished to the attic for years, but eventually and movingly reemerges. Helvetica’s writing may undergo a parallel dormant period, but the power of her stories, and of telling stories, persists undiminished. Her work, most of it following the memorably named Darkly Drear, provides an escape for both herself and her readers, and likely will continue to do so for generations of readers after her death. The play makes explicit the link between her children’s books and other types of human stories, such as those about what happens after death. Here, the boundaries separating beliefs, stories, and lies fall somewhere between blurry and nonexistent.
The Helvetica font was meant by its creators to be neutral, to assert no meaning in itself, leaving the meaning to be created and reside in the content, in what people used it to say. This is perhaps applicable to play’s perspective on living a life. There are, it tells us, good days and bad days. There are days when someone plays pirates on a sailing ship constructed from living room furniture, and there are days when a somewhat insensitive doctor (Dante Jayce) tells that same person that she has another tumor in her brain tissue. The world for Helvetica, and for Helvetica, is, to paraphrase The Decemberists, a terrible world, a beautiful world.
Along with Sven Haabeth’s totally cuddly Myron, David Berman as Helvetica’s fundamentally decent though sometimes condescending husband and Betsy Feldman as the fearless, world-weary Future Helvetica are standouts in this world. This production is funny, often darkly so, and strikes a bittersweet balance between melancholia and optimism, through which it accumulates an emotional power that comes to a head at one late point when Past, Present, and Future Helvetica share the stage. Early on, Myron says early that Helvetica herself is our story, and it is a tale well worth the listening. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler