Gentlemen, if anyone ever asks you to choose which of three women is the most beautiful, I have one word for you….decline. Paris didn’t, and instead allowed himself to be bribed by the goddess, Aphrodite, into choosing her over Hera and Athena. Paris may have won the most beautiful woman in the world (Helen of Troy) as his reward, but in the process he pissed off two very powerful goddesses who retaliated by switching his beauty for a phantom. Imagine fighting an entire war over a woman who was an imposter. It boggles the mind.
|Maxwell Caulfield (Menelaos) and Rachel Sorsa (Helen)|
© 2012 J. Paul Getty Trust, All photos: Craig Schwartz
So where was the real Helen during the Trojan War? In this alternate version of the story written by Euripides in 412 BC, she’s whisked away to the Egyptian island of Pharos where she remains in exile waiting for her husband, Menelaos, to rescue her. For 17 years she’s been waiting in isolation while dodging the advances of King Proteus’ son, Theoclymenus, who is determined to make her his wife. And that’s where the story picks up…only now Proteus is dead and the island is under the authority of Theoclymenus and his sister Theonoe. What’s a fading femme fatale to do?
If it all sounds Greek to you, don’t worry. Director Jon
Lawrence Rivera and playwright Nick Salamone have taken Euripides’ tale and
turned it into the stuff of Hollywood fairytales, complete with a sweeping David
O. movie musical ending, and made it accessible for a contemporary Los Angeles
audience. Salamone’s adaptation reimagines the ancient characters as classic
screen legends with Helen (Rachel Sorsa) and Menelaos (Maxwell Caulfield) reminiscent
of Gable and Lombard, Hepburn and Tracy, and at their sexiest, Bogie and Bacall.
Sparks fly throughout, especially when a grimy, barely-clothed
Menelaos first stumbles upon Helen’s sanctuary in Proteus’ tomb. Caulfield cuts
quite a handsome figure, hands on hips posing insistently like the warrior king
he knows he is, even though he’s really a dirty, smelly mess. Rivera plays up
the incongruity between his bedraggled state and Sorsa’s beauty to great
comedic effect and the classically-proficient Caulfield rolls with it every
step of the way. Their verbal sparring is hilarious, and one of the ways Salamone
captures the pulse and pacing of their glamorous Hollywood predecessors.
Sorsa is a liquid gold vision who could have easily
stepped off a pedestal from inside the Getty’s walls. Dramatic, emphatic, and with
a sultry singing voice that wraps itself around the composer’s jazzy
arrangements in honey-filled waves, she is every bit the feisty goddess.
|L to R: Jayme Lake, Arsene Delay, Rachel Sorsa, |
and Melody Butiu
Her angels of fortitude, and companions of the mind, are
three misunderstood movie legends whose presence serves as comfort and strength
within her withering solitude; Arséne
DeLay as Elizabeth Taylor’s seductress, Cleopatra, Melody Butiu as Vivien
Leigh’s Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar
Named Desire, and Jayme Lake as Marilyn Monroe’s character, Cherie, in Bus Stop. They function as a Hollywood
Greek chorus/jazz trio singing back-up on many of the original compositions with
a blend that is satisfyingly smooth.
The expressive ability of jazz as a musical art form
makes it an inspired stylistic choice by composer David O. Five original compositions and
five more adapted songs, all with new lyrics by Salamone have been added,
ranging from a plaintive familiar spiritual that opens the play, to a sexy,
jazz-influenced sea shanty that accompanies the climatic moments of the escape.
Rich, subtle, and carefully crafted to invoke your emotional connection to the
story, they allow the subtext of the characters to play out at an even deeper
One example is the use of “When Johnny Comes Marching
Home (& When Teucer Comes Marching Home)” for Salamone’s ode to Teucer
(Christopher Rivas), a double amputee who has seen the worst of the Trojan War battlefield.
Rivas gives a compelling performance as the embittered soldier and the
accompanying soulful adaptation of the song points up the irony of a senseless
And that spiritual that opens the play – “Sometimes I
Feel Like a Motherless Child” – finds its way home in the original song, “I’m
Gonna Fly,” as the arc of the play traverses its final scene. Both are sung by a
scene-stealing Hattie (Carlease Burke), the embodiment of Hattie McDaniel from Gone With the Wind.
Chil Kong’s tongue-in-cheek portrayal of Theoclymenus as
an overgrown boy/man who pouts to the point of jumping up and down when he
doesn’t get his way is two parts Charlie Chan and one part Jackie Chan. In
contrast, Natsuko Ohama grounds Theonoe with a reverential calm that befits a priestess
of Artemis, though one that rules with a steely dragon lady’s hand. Ohama makes
one of the most memorable choices of the night with a simple gesture that
reveals her true feeling for Helen. The open-hearted vulnerability of the
moment is deeply affecting and completely unexpected. Robert Almodovar also
delivers as an old soldier who recognizes Helen and assists with her flight to
Rivera fashions a dramatic playing area in the Villa’s
courtyard arena with the addition of massive columns designed by John H. Binkley. The visual is
breathtaking against the museum’s ancient Roman facades illuminated by R.
Christopher Stokes and graced by a natural star-filled canopy overhead. Stokes not
only lights the actors, but creates effects that sweep across the Getty’s
second story balcony that surprise and delight. Adam Flemming’s accompanying
B&W film sequences also unfold above the action like a movie theatre in the
This Playwrights’ Arena production of Euripides’ HELEN is
the Getty Villa’s seventh annual outdoor classical production. Performances
continue Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through September 29 at 8:00 pm.
Tickets are $42 ($38 for students and seniors). For more information call (310)
440-7300 or go to www.getty.edu.
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posted by Ellen Dostal, MusicalsInLA @