To get a sense of director/choreographer Austin McCormick’s vision for The Judgment of Paris, this entertaining dance-theater retelling of the myth of Helen of Troy now at the Duo Theater, one only needs to describe how some of the goddesses are portrayed. Aphrodite (Gioia Marchese) comes to the stage like a platinum blonde Sophie Tucker with a thick Russian accent, while Athena (Yeva Glover) arrives accompanied by “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and looks something like a young and voluptuous stripper Mazeppa from Gypsy. It’s a marvelously sexy way of bringing these classical figures to life and also grounding them firmly in 20th-century mythology.
McCormick’s production — which unfolds in a Moulin Rouge-like environment (courtesy of scenic designer Rumiko Ishii) — mostly captivates as it relates the story of Aphrodite’s challenge to Paris (Seth Numrich) to select the goddess that he believes to be most beautiful — and win the undying love of Helen (Elyssa Dole). In his dances, McCormick references the styles of choreographers who have traditionally glorified women, particularly Bob Fosse’s economy of erotic movements and Busby Berkley’s highly synchronized dance routines.
The ensemble, dressed in sexy silk and lace bustiers and skirts from Olivera Gajic, delivers all of McCormick’s diverse dances with gusto and precision. As Hera, Laura Careless even displays some graceful pointe work. And the double casting of Numrich as both Paris and Helen’s older husband, Meneleaus, effectively underscores that Helen is an object rather than a person to both of her lovers.
However, the true centerpiece of the work is the hypnotic manner in which the Trojan War is brought to life on the smoke-filled and dimly lit stage. Working in pairs, the dancers move slowly and militaristically through the haze. McCormick’s choreography does not attempt to recreate battle sequences, but rather depicts the fighting as sensually-charged encounters between individuals on the opposing sides.
Not all of McCormick’s conceits prove to be as successful. Although the statuesque Davon Rainey dances beautifully and provides some muscular heft to many of the dances, it’s never entirely clear as to why McCormick has included a drag queen among the corps. One assumes McCormick means Rainey’s presence to be some sort of comment on gender roles in the story, but this promising auteur never fully elucidates his intent. Similarly, vast stretches of the dialogue, which has been adapted from sources ranging from Congreve to Charles Mee to Aeschylus, sound overly clichéd as declaimed by the company.
Further, the dénouement of the work doesn’t quite pay off. After the end of the Trojan War, Helen is spirited off to a burlesque house where she is repeatedly humiliated by both her fellow performers and an audience member (also played by Numrich), who takes to the stage and brutalizes her. Then a lighter coda lets the show end on a lighter, more frivolous note — but it’s one which allows theatergoers to leave with a smile rather than contemplating the deeper meanings of the tale.