Euripides' 'Helen': Theater Review

© 2012 J. Paul Getty Trust, Photo: Craig Schwartz
Maxwell Caulfield and Rachel Sorsa in "Helen"
A far-too-free adaptation of the rarely mounted ancient Greek play strains for relevance primarily through winking anachronistic references.

Nick Salamone's musical adaptation of the 412 B.C. play gets a late-summer staging at the Getty Villa's antiquity-styled outdoor amphitheater.

EuripidesHelen from 412 B.C. is an obscure text, and the chance to see it performed should be a valuable enterprise for the Getty Villa. The late-summer-night atmosphere of its antiquity-styled outdoor amphitheater can be an intractably vast space in which to block actors, but the ambience is superb. This alternate-universe revision of the myth -- completely contrary to the playwright’s orthodox Homeric version of three years earlier in his The Trojan Women -- would demand attention in this space, were this musical adaptation not such a superficial gloss on the classical form.

Certainly The Iliad’s account of Helen’s flight to Troy that led to the Greek siege and eventual destruction of the city has remained dominant in Western art and literature of the past two millennia. In this play, Helen instead has been spirited by Hermes at Hera’s orders to sanctuary on the Egyptian island of Pharos and replaced by an identical impostor, thus preserving her fidelity to her husband, King Menaleus of Sparta. This ancient analogue of a conspiracy theory (akin to those who believe the moon landing was a televised hoax) had antecedents: Herodotus attempted in his The Histories to rehabilitate Helen’s reputation some decades before Euripides wrote this version. Where The Trojan Women was the most sorrowful of tragedies, this Helen, while sharing its bitter denunciation of war, is lighter in tone and culminates in a happy escape when a shipwrecked Menaleus, thought dead, rekindles his love for the now-older Helen and rescues her from exile.

Adapter Nick Salamone seizes this occasion to amp up the middle-age romantic dimension and indulge in ceaselessly unconvincing knockabout parody tricked out with tired reversals on Hattie McDaniel mammy or Marilyn Monroe sexpot stereotypes, conventions of American musicals and show-business tropes. Very little of this is amusing, most of it thuds on impact, and though director Jon Lawrence Rivera has some good ideas on employing the space, the tone remains terminally unsteady, and much of the cast seems sorely under-rehearsed. Camp is deployed mostly as a reflex, not as a prism for a more complex consideration of the material – as, say, Stuart Gordon did last year in his musical adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator.

In Euripides’ concept, the long and bloody Trojan War was fought not only for suspect reasons (personal honor) but with a completely false justification: Helen was no more abducted by Paris and taken to Troy than were weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq. This is a powerful idea with obvious significance for our own experience, but this production explores the dramatic possibilities of this insight and irony in only the most shallow ways, invoking instead of provoking.

There are ghostly intimations in the play that anticipate Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which Salamone, in his best invention, enhances by creating a complement to Helen (Rachel Sorsa) in the character of Theonoe (Natsuko Ohama), sister to Theoclymenus (Chil Kong), the murderous ruler of Pharos who seeks to bed Helen, no longer protected by his dead father. Here Theonoe is the true power behind the throne, a devoted priestess to Artemis and, together with Helen, forms a bifurcated prototype for Prospero. This good work is rather undone by the deliberate indulgence in cliche villainy of Theoclymenus, conceived and cast as an Oriental menace out of a Sessue Hayakawa silent feature, without his redeeming innate dignity.

The Getty Villa has an estimable record of past productions, including a comparably styled but far more accomplished Culture Clash rendition of an Aristophanes comedy a few seasons back, but this is regrettably the weakest offering I have seen there. I would have far preferred if someone had wrestled with the 1950s Richmond Lattimore translation instead.

Produced by Diane Levine for Playwrights’ Arena
Cast: Rachel Sorsa, Maxwell Caulfield, Chil Kong, Natsuko Ohama, Carlease Burke, Melody Butiu, Arsene DeLay, Jayme Lake, Robert Almodovar, Christopher Rivas
Director: Jon Lawrence Rivera
Composer-musical director: David O
Original and adapted lyrics: Nick Salamone
Set designer: John H. Binkley
Lighting designer: R. Christopher Stokes
Costume designer: Mylette Nora
Sound designer: Bob Blackburn
Video designer: Adam Flemming