Friday, September 7, 2012

The Golden Age of Hollywood Meets a Golden HELEN at the Getty Villa

Maxwell Caulfield (Menelaos) and Rachel Sorsa (Helen)
© 2012 J. Paul Getty Trust, All photos: Craig Schwartz

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.

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.

Maxwell Caulfield
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 level.

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 war.

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 freedom.

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 sky.

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

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