There are few venues in Los Angeles better suited to productions of ancient Greek plays than the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater at the Getty Villa. Not only does it boast a large outdoor amphitheatre surrounded by galleries full of Greek and Roman antiquities, but it is positioned towards the sea and away from the noise and bustle of the city. The seventh annual outdoor theatrical production at the Getty Villa, a contemporary adaptation of Euripedes’ Helen, seeks to transcend its classical environment rather than take advantage of it.
Contemporary adaptations of ancient dramas have great potential for providing fresh interpretations and winning over new audiences, but they need to be done with a consistent and coherent vision. Playwright Nick Salamone and director Jon Lawrence Rivera, however, have created a bizarre pastiche that is fun and entertaining, but ultimately unsatisfactory. While they have maintained Euripedes’ story and characters, they have completely changed the dialogue, added music and reimagined the chorus.
Euripedes’ Helen tells a much different story about the famed Greek beauty than that told by Homer and others. Rather than a flesh-and-blood Helen running off to Troy with Paris, it is a phantom Helen created by the gods that does so, while the real Helen is captive on the island of Pharos in Egypt. She has been faithful and true to her husband Menelaus, who finally arrives by shipwreck to rescue his wife after seventeen years of separation. This version of Euripedes, obviously, is a comedy rather than a tragedy.
In adapting Helen, Salamone has transposed certain aspects of the play, but not others. The characters still retain their Greek names, but Helen (Rachel Sorsa) is no longer simply a princess; she is an aging siren of the silver screen. Although Menelaus (Maxwell Caulfield) initially appears onstage in rags, he later changes into the uniform of a modern U.S. naval officer, though with the accent of an English gentleman. Teucer (Christopher Rivas), another shipwrecked Greek, rolls onstage in a wheelchair. Of what war he is a wounded veteran is not made clear: Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan? His appearance is both threatening and pathetic. Theoclymenus (Chil Kong) appears onstage looking and acting like a caricature of a North Korean dictator, while his sister Theonoe (Natsuko Ohama) looks like a Buddhist nun because of her grey garb and shaved head. She puts in the dullest performance of what is an otherwise competent cast.
The most original part of the adapation, perhaps, is Salamone’s reimaging of the chorus. Each member of this trio displays a distinctive personality, from the buxom Cleopatra look-alike Cleo (Arsène DeLay) to the more demure Lady (Melody Butiu) and glamorous Cherry (Jayme Lake). These three play a large role at the beginning of the show as they help introduce the story and set the tone, but thereafter fade further into the background. They do provide plenty of comic commentary and soulful singing, often in jazzy harmony. The score composed by musical director David O is minimalist and unmemorable, apart from a few borrowed tunes.
Jon Lawrence Rivera tries to marshal the Getty Villa’s impressive financial and material resources to add a multimedia aspect to the production. Much the way Cirque du Soleil’s IRIS uses a celluloid movie projector to evoke a bygone film era, so does this transposition of Euripedes’ Helen. It is nearly useless, however, since the theatre’s backdrop fails to provide the flat background necessary to make much sense of the images. Film is used again to approximate the substance of Theonoe’s vision. Far more disappointing was the staging, especially the long entrances and exits that could have been curtailed. One could often hear a character’s arrival long before one could see it.
Maxwell Caulfield’s Menelaus was perhaps the most charming character of the play. He has swagger and style. It’s just a pity that he was given such canned lines as “Take me to your leader” and “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Such impositions might provoke cheap laughter, but they fail to prove the originality and creativity of Salamone’s adaptation, for this version of Helen is certainly no mere interpretation. You’ll likely be bowled over by your idyllic surroundings and lulled into a facile appreciation of this contemporary reworking of a Greek classic. Yet, once you strip away the veneer, you’ll see this production as the incoherent mashup that it is.
photos by Craig Schwartz © 2012 J. Paul Getty Trust
Playwright’s Arena at the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades
scheduled to end on September 29, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.getty.edu