Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
Once Again With Feeling
September 12, 2012
Euripides’ Helen is one of those reminders that there hasn’t been anything new since antiquity. It is as arch and post-modern as anything you can think of with its deconstructed storyline and revisionist aesthetic. The play, which is currently being presented by The Getty Villa as their annual theatrical offering in the outdoor amphitheater this fall, is slyly modern, a stance only abetted by Nick Salamone’s adaptation directed here by Jon Lawrence Rivera for Playwrights’ Arena. Written just years after The Trojan Women, Euripides returns to the fall of Troy and the fate of the beautiful Helen by retelling the legend with a completely different narrative capturing another co-existing version of the fate of those who were so intimately involved in the fall of Troy. This time around, we find Helen living on the Egyptian island of Pharos where she was magically transported at the time of her original kidnapping from Menelaos and replaced with a double who was carried onto Troy and the arms of Paris. She has sat by and tragically waited and wondered over the fate of her husband and people for 17 years and knows nothing of her double’s existence in Troy. Thus when Menelaos and some of his soldiers wash ashore on their journey home, the two fail to immediately recognize one another until they eventually align to escape the despotic rule of Theonoe and Theoclymenus.
Helen may not have Strauss’ music, but it certainly has the fun of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto for Ariadne auf Naxos. Even more so in this adaptation which casts Helen, the chorus and many of the other characters as Hollywood movie star archetypes including Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra and Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett. The point, of course, is that the most beautiful woman in history has been unfairly demonized and in fact is just a woman waiting for the return of her husband and misunderstood by so many. It’s a crafty and reasonable gesture on Salamone’s part especially for the chorus. But it doesn’t always work and the metaphor fizzles out long before the play is over. It can also be disturbing at times as Hattie, the slave to Theoclymenus and Theonoe in this version, is directed with relentless reference to the character of Mammy from Gone With the Wind. The minstrelsy is supposed to come off as more ironic commentary, but it doesn’t always succeed, creating some sitcom style laughs in pockets of the audience over the play’s short 90 minute running time.
But the show, which makes excellent use of the amphitheater’s space, still drives home the intellectual magic of Euripides work with its morphing of twice told tales through their very repetition. Rachel Sorsa stands at the center as the discarded queen in hiding and manages to keep things crisp without descending into parody or camp along the way, a temptation that can easily creep into this material. I was also enamored with the three choristers – Melody Butiu, Arséne DeLay and Jayme Lake who milk their Hollywood femme fatales for gags but also were able to side step playing them as mere practical jokes. This Helen is good for the Getty and it provides audiences here with one of the most watchable shows the Getty Villa has yet put on. If you get a chance, it comes recommended before it closes on September 29th.